Brexit Stage Left

The Absence of Contemporary Polish Playwrights on the British Stage

This paper focuses on the relative absence of contemporary Polish plays in translation in Britain despite their presence on some other European stages. Looking at the problem from my perspective as a British lecturer, director, actor, and translator, of both British and Polish heritage, I propose that among the many reasons for this absence, three main issues stand out: one related to audience reception, one related to translation, and one related to actor training. Firstly, the grotesque is, arguably, infrequent in much contemporary British writing on the mainstream stage while elements of it are common in selected contemporary Polish plays. This difference means that there is the potential for disinterest or misunderstanding from producers and audiences alike. Secondly, understanding the irony often inherent in the grotesque requires a shared point of reference within society, which may prove difficult to translate. I recently adapted and directed a successful staged reading of Polish playwright Małgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk’s The Suitcase at the Greenwich Theatre studio. My reservations about staging a full scale production relate to the play’s grotesque presentation of aspects of World War Two history and my assumptions about how this would be received. I would like to explore these assumptions here, and to draw connections with their wider cultural context.

Thirdly, I argue that there seem to be certain differences in actor training in Poland and Britain which are connected to the demands of contemporary writing and which contribute to the lack of Polish plays in Britain. Specifically, I have observed both as an audience member and as a researcher visiting the theatre academy in Warsaw that Polish actors are trained to perform when required in a grotesque, physically detailed style, which seems to differ from ‘British’ performance styles. Arguably, British conservatoire training does not include a similar technique, although some schools include related practices such as bouffon clowning. I sense, therefore, that learning more about (and borrowing from) contemporary mainstream Polish actor training techniques would be a helpful step in addressing one aspect of this complex issue.

Natasha Oxley