Where you start is everything . . . Or is it?
The small downstairs space at the Hampstead Theatre is one of my favourite venues, showcasing new and exciting writing talent, and Here and Now is a good start to what I hope will be another strong year.
Given the huge numbers of Polish immigrants in Britain, it’s surprising that there hasn’t yet been a stage exploration of their situation, and I’m sure that Nicola Werenowska’s Here and Now will be the first of many. Single mother Marysia and her son Kuba have escaped Poland for England. Marysia has a passionate hatred of her home country – ‘here I breathe’, she says of England – and will only tolerate English in her home. When her younger sister Anna comes to visit, she is shocked at Marysia’s squalid London accommodation and can’t understand why she was so desperate to leave Poland, only to work long hours as a cleaner. The two sisters could not be more different – Anna is vibrant, chattering away in Polish, while Marysia sits there quietly, determinedly answering her sister in English. Inevitably, it all ends in tears as the two sisters’ wildly divergent views of Poland mean they will never see eye-to-eye.
Flash-forward ten years and Marysia and Kuba have moved to Colchester. Kuba is now a grumpy teenager who speaks in monosyllabic grunts and is never complete without his laptop and Marysia works in a bank and calls herself Mary. When Anna turns up on Marysia’s doorstep, she threatens to throw Marysia’s carefully constructed new world into turmoil. For Anna wants to take Kuba to visit Poland, cook him Polish food, and speak to him in Polish. She tells Kuba the story of how she smuggled him to England when it was illegal, before Poland became part of the EU. But when Marysia looks at Anna, she’s back in Poland, ‘miserable and shit’. She is a mother who wants only the best for her son, and the arrival of her beautiful younger sister puts, as she sees it, her son’s life in jeopardy.
The dialogue throughout is good, and it’s a brave move by Werenowska to require the audience to work out most of what Anna says in the play through Marysia’s English responses. Particularly authentic are the examples of Polish ‘English’ phrases such as ‘Fuck to you!’ and ‘You do not do this smoking’. The only glaring false notes come from Marysia’s ex, Janusz, whose English is poor, yet uses words like ‘nostalgia’ in the right context.
Ania Sowinski beautifully captures Marysia’s turmoil and uses her body language to great effect when dealing with each of the other actors in the play. She shares some particularly tender moments with Mark Strepan, who plays Kuba, and Werenowska sensitively handles the intensity and frustrations in a single-parent family.
When I left the theatre, I judged the play a moving exploration of identity. Yet, the more I thought about it, the more I came to think that it left much to be desired. Here and Now is packed full of interesting and important ideas, but there are so many that, in the end, none is satisfactorily explored. Immigration, cultural assimilation, the experiences that make us who we are, the mother-child relationship, the effects of childhood trauma: we are given tantalising glimpses into all of these, and yet the playwright fails to develop any in a meaningful way. It’s unclear why Marysia had such a terrible experience in Poland and why her sister did not, and I wanted to know more about the different Polish immigrant experiences before and after the 2004 legislation. It’s also hard to fathom why Marysia, who has worked so hard to build a new life for her and her son, starts seeing her ex again, particularly when she knows it will cause Kuba pain.
The production also felt somewhat rushed: the scenes were short, and the cast seemed to spend a lot of time carrying out the scene changes themselves, lending the evening a rather amateurish feel. I’m also not convinced that an interval was necessary. Here and Now marks out Werenowska as one to watch, but a heavier editorial hand was needed to tighten the play and develop the important ideas contained within it.