The largest foreign-born community in the UK is Polish – it makes up 4.5% of London’s foreign-born population – but theatre in their adopted home continues to stereotype characters from the country, as well as people from Eastern Europe in general. If a Polish character does make it on to the stage, there’s a high chance they’ll be a cleaner or a builder.
There have been two recent examples of this. The first of these was Twelfth Night, Kwame Kwei-Armah’s inaugural production at the Young Vic. In an otherwise positive review, Time Out’s Andrzej Lukowski, called out its inclusion of a “grossly culturally stereotyped” Eastern European take on Andrew Aguecheek.
The inclusion of the character felt like a well-intentioned way of acknowledging that London is multitudinous, stuffed full of people from all over the world. But, still, it felt clumsy.
This, however, paled besides Josie Rourke’s role-reversed Measure for Measure, in which Jackie Clune played the character of Pompey as a Russian madam, complete with sleek blonde hair, red leather jacket, sing-song accent, and crucifix dangling over her crotch.
“There’s a tendency to lump characters from anywhere in Europe east of Vienna into one of two boxes: the ‘rich ones’ and the ‘poor ones’ “
It was a crude caricature in an otherwise intriguing textual experiment, a source of cheap laughs. That Clune’s role was small is not the point, it still contributes to the damaging stereotype of Eastern Europeans in the UK.
If not reduced to a punch line, another common stereotype is that of the stoic worker. Reviewing Mike Bartlett’s Albion at the Almeida last year, Lukowski said: “While it’s lovely to have a Polish character, I long for the day when we’re not portrayed as humourless workhorses.”
Television drama is just as bad, if not worse. There’s a tendency to lump characters from anywhere in Europe east of Vienna into one of two boxes: the ‘rich ones’ – oligarchs, mobsters, trophy wives – and the ‘poor ones’ – cleaners and prostitutes, plus an array of traumatised and trafficked women. If the characters are from the Balkans, then there’s usually an extra layer of cliches to deal with: tribal, fighty, with a penchant for hitting the bottle.
One of the many things to like about BBC Three show Killing Eve was the fact that Eve’s decent but rather dull husband just happened to be Polish, but it was notable because it happens so rarely. (Yes, I know the lead character was a beautiful Russian assassin, but at least there were a range of experiences reflected).
“It would be nice to see more theatres engaging with their communities – all of them – particularly as the UK careens unsteadily towards Brexit”
Perhaps if we saw a wider range of Eastern European characters on our stages, or theatres programmed more work by Eastern European theatre companies, or more prominent roles went to actors from Eastern European backgrounds, than this kind of stuff would sting less. But other than small festivals such as Voila!, taking place in November, this is rarely the case.
While tentative steps forward are being made in terms of diversity, there’s still huge room for improvement in UK theatre – stories about the British East Asian experience are similarly rare. With some theatres there’s a sense that once they’ve programmed one ‘diverse’ play, they feel they’ve done their jobs, ticked that particular box.
Last month I met Shermin Langhoff of Berlin’s Maxim Gorki, a theatre that sees it as its responsibility to reflect the city in which its based, including all its recent migrant communities, regardless of whether or not they are fluent in German. It would be nice to see more theatres engaging with their communities – all of them – in this way, particularly as the UK careens unsteadily towards Brexit and life in the UK becomes increasingly precarious and uncertain for residents from EU countries.
There are some positive examples. Croatian playwright Tena Stivicic’s sprawling 3 Winters was staged at the National, albeit back in in 2014, and Simon Longman’s lyrical play about the erosion of rural life, Gundog at the Royal Court, featured a migrant worker played by Romanian actor Alec Secareanu.
But all too often if there’s a character from Eastern Europe (I know the term is broad, but then so is much of what I’m talking about) on stage then they’re primarily there to dispense wisdom to or highlight the hypocrisy of other characters (I’m looking at you Bruce Norris’ The Pain and the Itch), rather then having an inner life of their own.
As the British-born child of Serbs, this is something I think about more than most, but it remains a telling example of the way our theatre culture still centres some people’s experiences and pushes others to the margins.