Cherry Blossom – report on the performance and post-show discussion

Report by, Rachel Clements, October 10th, 2008

On the evening of October 2nd fifty undergraduate and postgraduate students from the University of Glasgow together with staff from the CRCEES and the Slavonic Studies Section of the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at Glasgow, spent an evening in the Traverse Theatre Edinburgh for a performance of the ambitious new play Cherry Blossom. The event was concluded with a private question and answer session hosted by the writer, director and cast of Cherry Blossom.

This bilingual production, written and performed in Polish and English, tells the fictional story of Grażyna Antkiewicz, a mother who leaves her family and native Poland in search of better paid work in Scotland. This fictional account of Grażyna's experience is interwoven with selected quotes from interviews conducted with Polish migrants during the play's development stage. The result is a moving, highly charged piece superbly performed by Sandy Grierson, John Kazek Marta Ścisłowicz and Małgorzata Trofimiuk.

Cherry Blossom is complicated and multi-layered, balancing the imagined account of character Grażyna against a factual account of the last hours of Robert Dziekanski's life. In the post-play discussion students were particularly interested in this aspect of the drama, and the decisions which informed the creative process.

The play was born from a desire on behalf of the Traverse Theatre to fund collaborative writing initiatives. The young playwright Catherine Grosvenor, fresh from her debut at the Traverse Theatre with One Day All this Will Come to Nothing, teamed with director Lorne Campbell, video designer Mark Grimmer and set designer Leo Warner to construct this original and technically demanding production. Co-produced with the Teatr Polski, Cherry Blossom is now set to tour Bydgoszcz and Warsaw.

Cherry Blossom is a sensitive response to the fascination that surrounds the wave of Eastern European immigration into Scotland following the enlargement of the European Union in 2004. As playwright Catherine Grosvenor explained in the post-performance discussion, Cherry Blossom does not claim to represent the experiences all Poles living in Scotland, it's about one family and how they cope with a trying situation. For Grosvenor, one of the main themes of the play is the vulnerability of humans if their ability to communicate is taken away. While the character Grażyna Antkiewicz eventually triumphs, convincing her landlord to replace the mouldy 'mushroomed' carpet in the shared house, her story is paralleled with that of Robert Dziekanski. Dziekanski was unable to communicate in Toronto Airport and after a serious of misinterpretations, he tragically lost his life. As the tagline of Cherry Blossom so poignantly surmises, "Grażyna Ankiewicz lived. Robert Dziekanski died".

Cherry Blossom does not shy from discussing the hardships faced by Polish migrants to Scotland; the very title of the play refers to playground taunts aimed at Poles in Glasgow during the 1960's. In the after-show discussion students were interested to know how the actors prepared themselves for playing such demanding roles. We were surprised to learn about the pressures of the Scottish theatre system, with tight budgets and relatively fast paced performance scheduling. The cast only had five weeks to rehearse, which, as director Lorne Campbell suggested, allowed the audience to 'smell the fear, smell the adrenaline and feel the rush' of the performance.

The dialogue based drama sees all four actors share six major roles (the four members of the Antkiewicz family, the Virgin Mary and the Scottish love interest, John Macintyre). The same talented actors take on numerous minor parts as well, including a shifty landlord and the comedic interlude of Job Centre workers. Campbell felt that by moving actors between characters, avoiding any contrived directorial pattern, the pressures of communication would be exposed. This technique also helped to question conventional understandings of identity, using male actors to play out a heterosexual love scene for example, and placing Polish actors in the roles of Scottish characters.

Campbell and Grosvenor considered Cherry Blossom to be a triumphant story about the entrepreneurial spirit of migrants, intercepted by an undercurrent of foreboding. For them the play highlighted immigrant loneliness and frustrations, and raised questions about the growing dysfunction Polish families have to face when members of the unit immigrate in search of better opportunities and higher wages. For Campbell, Cherry Blossom tried to draw on understandings of what it means to be a mother in Poland, a role fast changing and context bound.

Students and staff were particularly appreciative of the honest and compelling discussion delivered by the cast and crew of Cherry Blossom, concluding the evening with a long round of applause and a line of students wanting to express their thanks to the Cherry Blossom production team. It was clear that the event helped students deepen and expand their understanding of the political, economic and social problems of the studied region.

The event was sponsored by the Centre for Russian, Central and East European Studies and organised by Dr Elwira Grossman. Transport was kindly provided by the Polish Consul General, Edinburgh.

First published: 21 October 2008