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The Sydney Morning Herald

Fear and loathing in eastern Europe

Author: Elissa Blake.
Date: 09/07/2010
Words: 707
Source: SMH
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Metro
Page: 12
This darkly comic play is a road trip out of the comfort zone, writes Elissa Blake.

Dorota Maslowska was a literary celebrity long before she wrote her first play at 22, the blackly comic

A Couple of Poor, Polish-Speaking Romanians.

Her first novel, White and Red, a grim slice of modern eastern European life set in a tower block and populated by drug-freaked teens, published when she was 19, catapulted her into the vanguard of young eastern European writers. Her second, The Queen's Peacock, earned her a Nike Award, Poland's most prestigious literary prize. Pretty good going for a writer whose stated ambition was to "destroy the Polish language".

"She's an extraordinary writer," says Alice Livingstone, who is directing a return season of A Couple of Poor, Polish-Speaking Romanians at the Newtown Theatre. "She has a very unusual imagination and loves playing with language - making a game of it, almost. And there's a really cheeky sense of humour in her writing and that really appeals to me.

"It's scatological, very poetic, full of imagery and puns and incredibly fast-paced."

In the play, the poor, Polish-speaking Romanians are Parcha and Dzina, both trying to get back to the big smoke from a druggy "Rats, Scabs and Scroungers" fancy-dress party held in some nameless dump of a country town.

They stagger into roadside takeaway joints and servos, scamming lifts by impersonating itinerant Romanians, a common ruse of beggars in post-communist Poland, apparently.

Their trip through the night takes them through a rapidly changing country in the grip of have-it-all consumerism, where the nouveau riche rub shoulders with the dirt-poor. "Maslowska got the idea when she and her boyfriend pretended to be Romanians at a hotel once, just for fun and to get a reaction," Livingstone says. "Because one of the darker things she looks at in the play is xenophobia. It's the fear of the unknown, the outsider who is going to affect your life, destroy what you hold dear, squeeze into your comfort zone."

In Poland in the 1990s, she adds, as in many European countries, there was an influx of migrants from the poorer countries of the former Soviet bloc, in particular, Romania. "A lot of crime came with them. And that bred a kind of fear. At the same time, Maslowska also made a comment that Poles always like someone who's a little bit lower on the pecking order, someone who is worse off than them."

A Couple of Poor, Polish-Speaking Romanians unfolds in a series of tight scenes set in cars and truckstops as Parcha and Dzina, who is pregnant, cadge and cajole their way home. But is Dzina really pregnant? Is Parcha really, as he claims, a famous soapie actor? And where, exactly, is home anyway?

"Parcha's a great role to play," actor Neil Phipps says. "Such a great and horrible role.

"The language leaps off the page. A lot of it is just getting your mouth round the sentences physically. He spits out quite bizarre and surreal images."

"There's a real Hunter S. Thompson feel to it," Livingstone says. "A mad road-trip quality - like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas - written on the edge of life."

Phipps says the play is "80 minutes of mayhem". "It's really funny but you don't know if you should be laughing at these people; it's excruciating."

This is Livingstone's second crack at the play, having directed its Australian premiere in New Theatre's New Directions program last year. This time around, it's a Focus Theatre production, an independent company fronted by Livingstone and Pete Nettell (Bent, Blowing Whistles, Bison/Natural Born Hooker).

"The reaction was hysterical laughter," she recalls.

"People really got it. But it's great to go back and revisit it. We've had a chance to dig deeper in and change a few things.

"Because all the groundwork has already been done, we can really get in and play.

"It needs a very strong performative style, it's very upfront and out there because the language seems to demand it.

"Whatever we did, it seemed to work and lots of people have said they wanted us to bring it back."


Previews Tuesday, runs Wednesday to August 7, Newtown Theatre, 8507 3034,, $22-$30.

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