King’s Head Theatre, London – until 3 February 2018
Jessica Lazar’s production of East is imaginatively directed, satisfyingly choreographed and acted with commitment by a talented cast within the tight boundaries of the King’s Head Theatre’s postage stamp stage. It is hard to imagine a better fringe staging. However, there is a problem and it lies not with the cast or the creative team, but with the play. Steven Berkoff’s East has become a minor stage classic, and remains influential, a very clear influence on last year’s Flesh and Bone. Forty years after its premiere, it status seems increasingly questionable.
Berkoff’s verse drama, about two generations of working-class East Enders, made a splash in 1975 with its use of formal, fanciful, heroic language to portray deeply unheroic lives, and with a sexual frankness barely seen before on stage. The latter no longer raises much of an eyebrow and the language, highly reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange, which preceded it, fails to mask an absence of characters with a resemblance to real people, and the gleeful presentation of racist and sexual violence.
Berkoff’s describes the play, sardonically, as “an elegy for the East End”. The men in the play – embittered, women-hating, racist Dad (Russell Barnett), and violent, rapist, racist son Mike (James Craze) and his equally thuggish mate Les (Jack Condon) – are some of the nastiest characters you could wish to meet. They fight, stab and bludgeon, they threaten or attack anyone who is not white, they boast of racist murders, they harass women, force sex on girlfriends, and use underage girls for sex before kicking them out on the street.
These scenes take place around family trips to Southend and nights in front of the telly, part of a supposed everyday East End existence which consists of a sickening combination of violence and sentimentality. Because they are such unmitigated thugs, it is impossible to have any sympathy with them, to understand their behaviour, or to believe in them. The play is dominated by stereotypes and, unlike A Clockwork Orange, East uses ultra-violence as a substitute for insight rather than a tool for dismembering hypocrisy.
The strongest characters are the two women, Mum (Debra Penny) and Sylv (Boadicea Ricketts), fought over by Mike and Les, and their key scenes represent the sum total of character depth in the play. Mum has a monologue which reveals her to have been destroyed at the hands of her vile husband, while Sylv has the stand-out scene in which she expresses her sexuality, full of youth and energy, and demands the same freedoms as the men. However, the behaviour of men towards women in East is so crude and despicable, and the sexual dynamics so rotten, that it is simply not possible to the scenarios in East can form the basis for any equality thesis.
Tellingly, the most effective scenes in Lazar’s production are those without dialogue: particularly a silent tv-watching sofa scene and a scene change in which the cast remain in character as they bicker while clearing up an overturned breakfast table. Musical director Carol Arnopp plays the piano on stage throughout, soundtracking the action with Cockney classics. The creative energy behind the production is impressive, but the play no longer seems worthy of this level of attention. Berkoff has a long-term connection with the King’s Head but, on the evidence of East, it is time to move on.
I saw East with complimentary review tickets.