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'Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta': A Touching Story of Immigration and Family

Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta is originally an autobiographical novel by Aglaja Veteranyi, turned into a one-woman adaption by Edith Alibec, who reframed the novel to reflect her own personal experience travelling through Germany. The story follows the main character, a young girl, as she travels around the world with her family of circus performers after they have fled Romania. Aglaja, the protagonist, is too young to remember where she comes from and only food serves as a symbol—a reminder—of her home country; for this young girl, home is her mother’s cooking and more specifically, polenta.

Her mother’s circus act consists of hanging herself by her hair from above – something which terrifies Aglaja. When her mother performs, her sister tells the story of the child cooking in polenta to take her mind off her mother’s potential peril. 'The child cooks in the polenta', Aglaja says, 'because he is afraid'. Aglaja is the child who is cooking in the polenta – she is afraid of the death of her parents and of the world around her, and so, she clings to the food of her home to stabilise herself and to feel comforted. This play illustrated what it truly means to be foreign. The protagonist is not only a stranger to the countries she passes through, but her isolated childhood makes her an outsider.

In the play, Aglaja has a sporadic attendance at school and has impossible dreams of becoming a great actress like Sophia Loren. This was also gave a glimpse of the struggles immigrants face to make money and build careers. The closest she gets to her dream is performing at a Gentlemen’s Club and then, auditioning for an acting academy. The response of her audition was overwhelmingly tragic: she is told 'this isn’t a circus'. The very thing she tried to emancipate herself from was what prevented her from chasing her dreams.

The melancholic undertone of this play was almost masked by the unpreoccupied storytelling of a child: Alibec put on a formidable performance—emulating a nine-year-old girl very well—interacting with the audience. The idea to turn this into a play gave an opportunity to those who—like myself—didn’t read the novel to get to know the character, the author and Alibec’s personal version of Aglaja. The way children talk and tell stories is very much like a one woman show. With children, everything is told in an exaggerated and excited manner. Alibec embodied this masterfully.

Within seventy minutes, the audience witnesses a bittersweet chapter of a unique life. Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta is a touching story and gives a coup d’oeuil to a life far beyond the reaches of many of our experiences.

Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta is on at the Gate Theatre until the 4th of May and tickets are available here.

Edited by Evangeline Stanford, Digital Editor

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