Migrant voices onstage in London


This month, London hosts a series of documentary performances on migration in eastern Europe.


Molly Flynn
8 October 2015

Since the early 2000s, documentary performance practice has come to lead the theatre avant-garde across Russia and Eastern Europe. A form of performance that draws its material from current events and real life documents such as interviews, articles, and autobiographical narratives, documentary theatre is practiced around the globe. However, the genre’s investment in questioning notions of truth, identity, and the stability of historical narratives has made it a particularly generative creative practice in post-socialist countries.

Contemporary east European documentary theatre has come to constitute an important space for the speaking and witnessing of real-life testimonies, ushering stories from the past, and those from the so-called ‘periphery’, directly into the here and now. As a rule, documentary theatre draws its narratives from found texts and interviews. Those who share the space with the performers of documentary theatre are transformed, in this way, into witnesses to the stories being told onstage.

The play is performed by untrained actors, who tell the stories of their friends and acquaintances.

In the upcoming series of documentary plays on migration and social inequality in Bulgaria, Russia, and the UK, London’s GRAD Gallery offers audiences a chance to witness the works of some of Eastern Europe’s leading documentary theatre artists.

In conjunction with the gallery’s multidisciplinary arts platform Peripheral Visions, a special project of the Sixth Moscow Biennale, GRAD will host three east European documentary plays between 9 October and 13 November.

Acts of testimony

Moldyi teatr’s musical satire Bloody East Europeans opens the series with a blend of comedy, tragedy, Soviet anthems, Ukrainian folk ballads and 70s disco hits. The play is performed by untrained actors, who tell the stories of their friends and acquaintances facing the challenges of London living as undocumented migrants.

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Uzbek. Photo: Anna Alferova (c)Bloody East Europeans voices testimonies from people who are often relegated to the margins of public discourse and gives audiences a chance to consider the real life experiences of East European migrants in London.

The second play in the series, Uzbek by Talgat Batalov, tells the story of how its author emigrated from Tashkent, Uzbekistan to Moscow at the age of 19. While presenting his audiences with his real life immigration documents, Batalov details how he came to understand his own national identity as a Muscovite-Uzbek of Tatar descent.

‘When I lived in Uzbekistan I considered myself Russian,’ Batalov jokes, ‘because everyone there considers themself Russian’. Only after moving to Moscow, as Batalov describes it, did the actor/director begin to identify and be identified as Uzbek. Through its use of irony and sarcasm, Uzbek challenges the murky relationship between official documents and national identity in the post-Soviet space.

People in western Europe are offered few opportunities to hear from those at the heart of the crisis.

We Are the Rubbish From Eastern Europe is the final performance in the series, presented by Bulgaria’s leading documentary theatre company, Theatre Replika. Directed by Georg Genoux and produced with support from the Bulgarian Goethe Institute, the play depicts the lives of people in Sofia living off the contents of the city’s rubbish bins.

In the second act, Replika’s actors recount stories of their friends’experiences of emigrating to western Europe and the struggles they face.

Through the rubric of rubbish, both literal and figurative, We Are the Rubbish From Eastern Europe explores the value of everyday objects and asks important questions about what matters most in the actors’ own efforts to sort through the lasting legacy of socialism in the contemporary Bulgarian context.

Witnesses wanted

Debates about Europe’s migrant crisis have taken center stage in public discourse in the past nine months. Horrific stories and images of the resultant tragedies appear on the front pages of newspapers across the globe as political figures deliberate on how many refugees and migrants their respective economies can accommodate.

Despite the flood of coverage on the topic however, many people in western Europe are offered few opportunities to hear from those at the heart of the crisis.


Rehearsal. Photo: Miroslav Pasuk (c)As a collection of works, the plays in GRAD’s Peripheral Visions theatre programme make no claims about Europe’s current refugee crisis. They do not feature the stories of Syrian refugees; the actors in them are not those who have survived the lethal journey across the Mediterranean.

These plays do, however, offer audiences access to true stories from real-life people who have made the choice to leave their homes and start anew in a country they believed would offer more opportunities, greater stability, and a freer life.

The plays included in the series touch the socialist past and draw out that history’s relevance in the present. They tell the stories of individuals who have left home, crossed borders, and faced the challenge of starting over somewhere new. The complexities of national identity and the fungibility of official documentation are exposed in these non-fiction narratives while the stripped-down aesthetic of the performances communicates the raw nature of the narratives told onstage.

Considered in relation to one another, Bloody East EuropeansUzbek, and We Are the Rubbish From Eastern Europe, form an alternative method of documenting the undocumented and investigate the nuances of national identity in post-Socialist spaces.

As audiences and artists come together for this unique series of theatre events, participants are invited to re-imagine and re-define collective narratives about xenophobia, migration, and social inequality in contemporary culture.

To view the full schedule for GRAD’s Peripheral Visions documentary theatre programme click here

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