Life in the UK: Romanians in London through immersive theatre?

Cover photo by  Dan Perjovski

‘Romanians are vampires sucking up the jobs of the British’ – Paul

I have written here before about the Romanian community in London, and in particular about a group of Romanian Roma workers who face various difficulties, including civil charges, irregular status due to the long waiting time involved in obtaining work permits, debt and poverty. The recommendations we made to improve the life of this group of vulnerable migrants include: developing an awareness campaign on the rights of Roma in the UK, demanding transparency from the ex-UKBA, investigating the refusal to issue national insurance numbers, organising peer support through community organisations and making return migration a viable option for this group of Romanians.

We added our voice to the efforts made by other organisations and institutions in raising awareness of the Romanian community in the UK, focusing on aspects of their lives as migrants who travelled from Romania for various reasons, such as working, studying, re-uniting with family, or simply having new experiences.

I am a Romanian-British who moved to the UK 14 years ago. With the passing of time I have observed, especially in the last two years, how the public perception of Romanians (and Bulgarians) has gone from bad to worse. I wonder whether the media and politicians who manipulate this perception for their own benefit, such as increasing their sales or getting votes through scaremongering, have met a Romanian in person or have been to Romania to find out what these people are like and how they understand life in Britain. I invite those involved in their pursuit of scaremongering against the Romanian community to look at us through different eyes.

Immersive Theatre | Memodrome: Exile

Recently, I had the pleasure of participating twice in an immersive theatre created and performed by a group of talented Romanian actors, through a project that explores the life of the Romanian community in the UK. The settings of these two performances were very different. The first was in East London’s Rich Mix theatre, while the second was at the Romanian Cultural Centre, in the heart of London. The concept of such theatre is rooted in the research questions addressed through interactive theatre to challenge the Romanian identity discourse, both in Romania and the UK. The purpose of this kind of creative endeavour is to generate a ‘collection of stories that could lead to a deeper understanding of Romanian cultural paradigms and to the commemoration of the hidden history of Romanian endeavour for democracy’, explains Doczi Anca, co-founder of Immersive Theatre.

The play:

Is about a group of young Romanians and how they understand life in Britain. The story begins with birthday party celebrations for one of the Romanian friends. A police officer ruins the party when she knocks at the door and enters, claiming to have identified a crime. The police officer picks up the laptop and takes the owner, Ana the birthday girl, to the police station. The play ends with this act.

Strikingly, and typically in my eyes, this scene captures the submissive attitude of the Romanians towards authorities: a police officer has a warrant for the arrest of the laptop owner, and the owner questions nothing. She just follows the order to go to the precinct. This behaviour draws on the stereotype that ‘Romanians are known frauds in the UK’, as one of the audience members said. Therefore, it is possible that the birthday girl has internalised this stereotype, and believes there is no point in challenging a police officer—we are all seen the same way, anyway.

The method:

The play was conceived as a giant ethnographic type of focus group where the audience usually has a great part, by intervening one member at a time, freezing the play to change a character in order to arrive to a more constructive end. This way, many actors were swapped by the audience members. This method follows on the footsteps of the Brazilian theatre director Augusto Boal.

The protagonists:

Ana is the birthday girl; Alex is the computer geek almost invisible in the play. Paul is haunted by a communist past and currently works and studies media and public relations. Paul and Ana have a ‘bread and butter job’ in the same restaurant. Ileana is the girl working in the city, the daughter of a Romanian nouveaux riches family and Andrew is a black man, born in Romania. In Romania, he could not get a job because he was black, and now he cannot get a job in the UK because he is Romanian.

The audience:

In this play, I identified best with Paul, without the haunted communist past. Out of the 14 years spent in the UK, 8 years I worked with various British communities and studied at the same time. I borrowed money to pay for my education and I will be paying it back for years to come. Other Romanians present in the audience identified with the birthday girl. One lady felt sorry for the girl’s ruined birthday party. At the end of the play, I asked Caroline, an Englishwoman from the audience what she thought of the play:


‘I see same issues debated here by these young Romanians, as in some British families: money and jobs. Those with wealthy parents keep moving upwards on the ladder of success while the ones who have to work for their money to pay their education continue to struggle and debate on the issues of money and better jobs.’



Public Perception vs. Cultural Differences

In a YouGov/Sunday Times poll (published 16 February 2013), 48% of people think that Britain should limit the right of Bulgarian and Romanian citizens to live and work in Britain, even if it means breaking EU laws. The same statistics suggest that origins matter less than skills when discussing immigration to Britain. East Europeans are welcomed as much as other professionals, but it may mean that the perception of Eastern Europeans as low-skilled workers counts more than the cultural differences.

The Migrant Observatory reported in 2011 that there were 3 million migrants working and living in London (in 2010), most in low-sectors such as food manufacturing and manual, unqualified labour. According to the Office for National Statistics, in December 2011, only 94,000 declared themselves as Romanians resident in the UK. Among these, there are a high proportion of specialists employed or self-employed: 2,000 doctors, social workers and nurses, and around 6,000 students.

It is not that Romanians are vastly different from the rest of the migrants living in London, but the perception of them is. The Romanian community in the UK is diverse, dynamic and contributes to the UK workforce and tax revenue. Whilst assimilating the UK culture, Romanians face challenges as foreigners who are stereotyped against their ‘immigrant state’.

A decade ago, Britain supported Romania aside the other Eastern European countries to enter the EU. I wonder what could have happened during this time that Romanians, Bulgarians, Polish and other nationalities have become so devalued as to be seen as the plague, the benefit cheats, the beggars or the vampires sucking up the jobs of British?

If you are ready and curious to learn how Romanians see London through talks, films and travel writing, come to this event on May 11 & 12 2013, organised by UCL research and staff members : Look Through Different Eyes.





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