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Wed 16 October 2019
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Emma Burnell discovers many wider resonances in the dramatisation of tensions between Ukrainians and Poles.

When I was invited to attend a week-long festival of Ukrainian and Polish theatre in Poznan, I was slightly nervous. I don’t speak either language and so reviewing would be a tough gig. But on the other hand, how often do you get an opportunity to travel and challenge yourself in this way? 

Poznan is one of the more liberal cities in a Poland that has become increasingly right-wing.  It has many universities that give the city a young feel. The Poles I met also told me that unlike some other cities that look to Russia for influence, Poznan is very Western-influenced by its proximity to Berlin. It is also the capital of Greater Poland, which is one of the better off regions of the country – something that has attracted a large immigrant population – not least from Ukraine. 

40% of Poles have a negative view of Ukrainian immigrants compared to just 16% positive. 

The Close Strangers festival reflected this. The theme was relations between Polish and Ukrainian people – both historically between the two countries – and the treatment of the large Ukrainian population who live and work in Poland. ‘Close strangers’ is a reference to the fact that despite living in close proximity, the communities don’t mix and the Ukrainians are treated with suspicion and as second class citizens. 40% of Poles have a negative view of Ukrainian immigrants compared to just 16% positive. 

What struck me most about this was how Polish attitudes to Ukrainians so closely mirrored attitudes towards Poles in the UK. As they treat the Ukrainians, so we treat them. Everyone finds someone to kick down at. Even in East London where I live and where there is a thriving Polish community, they are still very much seen as a separate group. In Britain, it is often the Polish community who are seen as our ‘close strangers’. 

To be in a foreign land having to struggle to comprehend what is happening around you is, in many ways, the perfect experience for the theme of ‘close strangers’. 

Normally, international theatre festivals are subtitled in English. This is one of the privileges of speaking English that we never really understand because we’re rarely faced with the alternative – where we are surrounded by a language we don’t speak and can’t understand. But because of the nature of this festival, the plays were largely presented in Ukrainian and subtitled in Polish. For the majority of these I had an interpreter who worked incredibly hard to whisper the dialogue to me. 

But one night, she was unable to attend and I was left in the theatre in the dark on my own. The written synopsis I had been given useless as I couldn’t see to read it. It was a profound experience. 

Trying to understand the action of a play without the words to do so – enough to review it – was complex and hard work and completely worth it. It was a fascinating piece of work and without a clear understanding of the words, I had to let the action speak to me.

Following the rich seam of the actor’s creation, the play flowed over me, giving me a better understanding of what it is like when people don’t cater to your language all the time. To be in a foreign land having to struggle to comprehend what is happening around you is, in many ways, the perfect experience for the theme of ‘close strangers’. 

The festival also explored the theme of increasing nationalism and violence as well as issues around sexual discrimination and abuse. These were issues that both the Polish and Ukrainian audiences and theatre-makers felt were prevalent and increasing in their respective countries. These are universal concerns and felt as relevant to the UK as they did to Poland and Ukraine.

However, here in Posnan, these questions of discrimination were framed by the long-running antipathy between the two nation. These began centuries ago but were heightened by a massacre of Poles in Ukraine during the Second World War which has left deep scars and resentments. The sins of the past and their effect on the people of today was an oft-revisited theme. 

Liberal Poznan is an outlier in current Polish society. So what I experienced there couldn’t be described as the whole Polish experience. But it was fascinating to see their theatre-makers working to uncover so many of the issues ours cover. To see how much we have in common and what is different and to understand the experience of the ‘close strangers’ everywhere.

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