Is This A Plumber I See Before Me? Poles Take Centre Stage Without The Stereotypes

Is this a plumber I see before me? Poles take centre stage without the stereotypes

This year there are a record number of shows by one of Edinburghs largest immigrant populations. Our correspondent meets the artists who are determined to show the best of their culture to British audiences

Ben Hoyle
The Sunday Times
August 10, 2007

Throwing off stereotypical roles of builders, plumbers and carpenters, Britains Polish community is highlighting its substantial presence through a more creative medium over the coming weeks in Edinburgh.

Three years after Polands admission to the European Union paved the way for an influx of workers, Polish culture is making a belated impression at the Edinburgh Festival.

There are 12 Polish or largely-Polish shows on the Fringe, double the number from the previous four years combined. At the same time Inspiring Humanity, a major exhibition of 24 contemporary Polish artists, is showing as part of the Art Festival.

Estimates suggest that there are up to one million Poles now living and working in Britain. Edinburgh has one of the most concentrated settlements, with about 35,000 Polish residents.

Earlier this year tickets for three Polish comedians at the Queens Hall sold out and Edinburghs Polish bars regularly bring Polish rock bands over to play at weekends.

Some of the work on the Fringe touches directly on the immigrant experience. REID,a bilingual piece by the newly formed GAPPAD theatre company grew out of the personal stories of the cast six Poles living and working in Scotland.

One of the lead actors had to take time off from his job as a factory cleaner in Glasgow. And Agnieska Bresler, 22, the companys founder, subsidises her acting career working as an interpreter and translator for Glasgow City Council.

I really wanted to concentrate on how immigration influences your identity, she said, to show how all the troubles and barriers and unexpected questions that an immigrant encounters change him or her permanently. We get a lot of Polish people leaving the show in tears, thanking us for showing the truth about their beginnings in Scotland.

Others have berated the cast for suggesting that families in Poland place intolerable pressure on young Poles to move to England for better wages, whatever the personal cost.

Poles have made up about 60 per cent of the shows audience at the Roman Eagle Lodge so far. Katrina Harrison, the plays Scottish director, said that the communitys support, both in Edinburgh and at the preview in Glasgow in June, had been vital and helped to explain why there were so many Polish productions in Edinburgh this year. Its the same reason why theres all these Polish web-sites and delicatessens here. They are a very strong culture who really try to feel at home, she said.

Three of the most compelling Polish Fringe shows were brought over from Poland by Pawel Potoroczyn, director of the Polish Cultural Institute in London. Macbeth: Who Is That Bloodied Man?is a spellbinding retelling of Shakespeares play by the internationally acclaimed Biuro Podrozy theatre, using stilts, motorcycles and fire (pictured). In The Table, Karbido create an extraordinary musical spectacle with four instrumentalists playing a table using sticks, bows, knives, hands and a mixing desk. Trip to Buenos Aires by Teatr Jaracza is a one-woman show about an old woman enduring memory loss. Its an attempt to prove that we are not only talented carpenters and plumbers but also talented writers, directors and performers, Mr Potoroczyn said.

He made seven or eight research trips to Poland last year to ensure that this years Fringe would reflect the best of contemporary Polish theatre. He dismissed the notion that this went against the anarchic spirit of the Fringe. Not in our case. When theres only a little funds youve got to select very carefully to avoid disaster.

This is only the beginning, Mr Potoroczyn hopes, for Polands cultural invasion of Britain. Next year he plans to put more conservative Polish theatre on the main bill at the Edinburgh International Festival and import young, fashionable Polish writers for the Book Festival. Ultimately he sees Polish artists fulfilling a similar cultural function to the plumbers and carpenters who have preceded them.

We have a unique opportunity. If British promoters cant afford to fill their spaces because of a shortage of arts funding (ahead of the Olympics), surely they can fill the gap with Polish theatre and music.