Theatre Reviews: Emigrants and Dirt


OUTSIDE the Roxy Art House you'll see a battered Mercedes camper van sitting forlornly at the kerb. This is the venue for Emigrants, Teatr Wiczy's powerful show about two Polish migrant workers sharing a bleak little caravan somewhere in western Europe. It has to be said that their cramped, broad-brush-stroke performance – delivered in that shouty, monotone Polish-English now favoured by many Polish companies on tour – is never likely to do justice to all the subtleties of Slawomir Mrozek's famous 1974 play, as an audience of 12 people pack like sardines into the back of the camper-van, to be sweated over and lightly trampled by the two characters, XX and AA.

What the show loses in political complexity, though, it gains in vividness, as the two inspired actors – Radoslaw Smuzny and Krystian Wieczynski – hurl themselves through Mrozek's faintly absurdist tragi-comedy of two men trapped in poverty and humiliation while they seek their fortune in the west. That the theme is hugely topical goes without saying. But as the men lurch from an existential debate about eating a can of dog-food to a boozy exchange of philosophies over a melancholy New Year's drink, Mrozek gradually opens up a series of powerful and enduring questions about the motives of migration, from raw economic need to a much more nebulous yearning for freedom. And in the profound ambivalence of XX and AA's attitude to their "host" society – sometimes made up of people barely human, at other times a healthy organism invaded by the "virus" of poor and despised immigrants like themselves – we can hear an ominous foreshadowing of the current intensely negative debate about migration in western Europe.

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If you want a full-frontal blast of that frightening negativity, though, go to the Gilded Balloon, where Christopher John Domig presents his award-winning performance of Austrian writer Robert Schneider's 1993 monologue, Dirt. The speaker is Sad, an Iraqi illegal migrant living in a western city, but inhabiting only the grubby crevices of a world which he sees as belonging to the "beautiful" white people of that place, with their language and superior civilisation, which he reveres.

In a sustained and distressing soliloquy of self-hatred, Sad offers a glimpse of his life as a cut-flower seller in the restaurants of the city, while relentlessly reproducing all the white racist attitudes he has internalised. He describes himself repeatedly as a "piece of shit"; towards the end, he repeatedly urges white people to rise up against him and his kind, for the protection of their country and their children.

The show is clearly designed to shock, and provoke thought among the thoughtful.The difficulty is that a racist tirade is a racist tirade, even from the mouth of a victim of racism. And there are moments when Domig enters so fully and uncritically into the despairing mind of Sad that the show seems as likely, in the current political climate, to act as a recruiting sergeant for the far right, as to shock decent people into an ever-deeper rejection of racist ideas.

Both until 17 August. Emigrants today 1pm, 3pm, 5pm and 7pm. Dirt today 12.15pm