The Polish invasion

A new wave of Polish culture in the UK is challenging stereotypes

Forget the jokes about Polish plumbers, cleaners and drivers who have lost their way - it's time to challenge such unthinking stereotypes. Perhaps you would like to think instead of Copernicus and Chopin, or of Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska, who were both Nobel laureates for literature at the end of the 20th century.

Or consider that since the country acceded to the EU in 2004, Polish cultural events in the UK have doubled in number each year, with 2008 looking busier than ever. On 28 February, the Kraków-based composer Krzysztof Penderecki premiered a new symphony at the Barbican with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. "Breaking the Rules", the British Library's exhibition of European avant-garde art from the early 20th century, boasts a substantial Polish section. The sixth Polish Film Festival, which opens in London on 10 April, will be the biggest yet. And many Polish writers are being translated into English.

"London is founded on the fetish of the box office," says Pawel Potoroczyn, director of the Polish Cultural Institute, with its headquarters in the West End. "Now that they're vying for the Polish pound, people are also beginning to wonder: 'What is Polish culture like? Polish cuisine?' And even, 'What is it like to be Polish?' People are trying to pronounce our names in the correct way, and that was not happening a couple of years ago. There has been a major shift in attitude."

When Lisa Goldman, artistic director of the Soho Theatre in London, went knocking on the cultural institute's door in search of exciting new writing, Potoroczyn put her in touch with the TR Warszawa theatre group. It recommended a first play by Dorota Maslowska - A Couple of Poor, Polish-Speaking Romanians. Maslowska burst on to the Polish literary scene at the age of 19 with White and Red, a drugs'n'thugs, state-of-the-nation novel set in an archetypal tower block. In 2006, her second novel, The Queen's Peacock/Puke (a pun in the original), won the Nike Prize, Poland's equivalent of the Man Booker. Maslowska once said that her work aims to destroy the Polish language. Now, still only 24, she is taking her punk aesthetic - a fierce combination of swearing, slang and linguistic wizardry - into battle with English.

In her play, a pair of "psycho-junkies", Parcha and Dzina, are aiming to get back to Warsaw from some unspecified dump in the sticks. As they stagger in to roadside milk bars and hijack lifts from other luckless sops, they often impersonate poor Romanians, a common ruse of beggars in post-Communist Poland. Their trip takes them through a country that is rapidly succumbing to shopping malls, credit cards and streets along which wealthy businessmen rub shoulders with babcie (grandmothers) selling shoe brushes from a wicker basket.

"Maslowska is an embodiment of the transition generation," says Potoroczyn. "Young Poles suffered a lot in the shift from communism to capitalism. She speaks for them, and with merciless irony."

Originally devised as a savage critique of xenophobia in Poland and of the widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots, the play has been adapted for a UK audience by Goldman in collaboration with the author. There are many laughs, and a fine performance by Andrew Tiernan as Parcha, but the darker moments still resonate with Polish, not British, significance. As Maslowska says, "The play is now in English, but the Polish customs and traditions are inherent. The English audience is smiling at different times from the Polish audience, and that's a difficult situation. It might be better with subtitles."

Goldman believes the play marks a turning point by having made it to the London stage in the first place, thus challenging the stereotype that Poles have no culture and are here only to work. Maslowska, too, speaks of the production as "a conversation between two cultures, rather than just a Polish concert or film in London". She hopes for a long-lasting dialogue.

The chances are that it will be, what with the cultural institute also promoting events in Liverpool, Leeds, Bath and Brighton. A Polish consulate is due to open shortly in Manchester. In June, the Glastonbury Festival will run a special Polish showcase, with four bands playing early on the Saturday evening. And it is rumoured that this August's Edinburgh International Festival has accepted Polish productions - usually banished to the Fringe - for the first time.

Yet Potoroczyn is most excited by Censorship as a Creative Force, a week-long arts season taking place at the Barbican in London from the end of this month. "We are bringing over writers, publishers, artists and one of the most influential Communist ministers of the Seventies and Eighties - a top-ranking official. Back then, the artists respected him, adored him, and why? Because he defended art when he was supposed to represent censorship! Another paradox in the history of modern Polish culture."

"A Couple of Poor, Polish-Speaking Romanians" is at the Soho Theatre, London W1, until 29 March. James Hopkin's novel "Winter Under Water" (Picador), set in Poland, is out now

Pick of the events

Research by Nichi Hodgson

Kinoteka - Highlights of this London-based film festival include Andrzej Wajda's Katyn, about the Soviet massacre of Poles during the Second World War, and an exhibition of posters by Andrzej Klimowski. From 10 April to 30 May.

Pawel Lukaszewski - The Britten Sinfonia performs new instrumental and choral work by this acclaimed composer at venues around Britain. Ends 29 March.

Gdansk: Polish Lives Found in Translation - The artist Marta Michalowska's short films about life under communism are on show at the Wapping Project, London E1, until 13 April.

Made in Poland - A Newcastle-based festival of contemporary dance, music and art. Runs throughout May.

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This article first appeared in the 24 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about Tibet