Anyone who has seen Stephen Poliakoff’s Perfect Strangers knows stories about one’s own family can be the most interesting of all. In the case of the actress Rula Lenska, this is doubly true. From Dzików to Willesden Green is a show based on verbatim interviews her mother Countess Elżbieta (‘Bisia’) Tyszkiewicz gave to Radio 4 in the 1980s. Excerpts from these audio recordings were broadcast at the time, but it was only later that they were transcribed and edited into the hour-long show that is being performed today. Accompanying the show are family photographs and other appropriate snapshots.
Hearing about Bisia’s formative years has a Chekovian, pastoral quality. Free from worries while growing up, her time’s split between her parents’ house and her grandparents. Much like the Prozorov family’s patriarch in Three Sisters, Bisia’s grandfather’s military and aristocratic status places him in a position of prominence and influence. While his family has close ties to the community, their social standing also sets them apart.
Anecdotes such as Bisia’s grandfather’s aversion to paying in cash provide amusing glimpses into the Polish artistocracy’s relationship with money. But as Bisia herself finds out, things she and the family pay for on a whim bear no relation to the wages of servants and ordinary people.
It’s only when Lenska starts talking about the events during the Second World War that we realise how immersed and comfortable we are in the world of 1930s Poland, and perturbed by the changes to come. As ‘citizens of the world’, Bisia and family settle in Italy for a time. However, the war catches up with them and whatever hardships they may have endured to date, are nothing compared to what’s to come…
Knowing that Bisia survives the camps, gets married and starts a new life in postwar London, it’s remarkable how much the human spirit can endure. All is made possible by the kindness of others, copious amounts of luck and a Churchillian determination: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
While there are many actors out there who are fine orators, Lenska lends to Bisia’s words an intimacy and pathos that can’t be replicated without knowing the person in question. More than just a chronicle of a bygone age, From Dzików to Willesden Green is an act of devotion whereby mother and daughter co-exist in the same place.
© Michael Davis 2018
From Dzików to Willesden Green ran at Live at Zédel on 8th April and will run at Kenton Theatre on 13th April.
Tickets available at http://www.kentontheatre.co.uk or on 01491 575698
Adult £16, Concessions £14 (Prices include £1 Restoration Levy)
Running Time: 100 minutes, including interval and Q&A