“the characters are pretty grotesque, but the cast still manage to earn our sympathy to a degree“
Mark-Anthony Turnage’s first opera, “Greek”, first performed in 1988, established his reputation as a unique composer, blending jazz and classical styles of music, shifting between modernism and tradition. Like Steven Berkoff, who wrote the libretto and on whose play of the same title this is based, he deliberately eschews mainstream aspirations. Consequently, this is not going to be to everyone’s taste, but the combination yields an intensely thrilling experience in this new production as part of the Grimeborn Opera Festival at the Arcola Theatre.
It is an incisive retelling of the Oedipus myth, relocating Sophocle’s play to North London in a Thatcherite Britain. Oedipus is now an angry young man, Eddy, who breaks away from his pernicious yet affectionate parents. He doesn’t know he’s adopted. We do. As we also know that the greasy-spoon café owner he kills in a brawl is his biological father. It is quite hard to swallow, especially the speed with which he shacks up with the dead man’s wife, aka his mother, as her husband is still lying bleeding on the ground.
The eighteen-piece orchestra pounds through the austere and often atonal score complementing the four singers’ performance which shares the same mix of lyricism and brutality. Sung in a cockney twang the narrative is clear, despite combining street talk with classical diction, and director Jonathan Moore’s uncomplicated staging amplifies the effect. Edmund Danon packs his rags-to-riches rise with coarse humour as he encounters love, wealth and finally his true identity. Eddy’s keening cry on discovering that his wife is his mother is chilling, if short lived. Tragedy is averted, in true Berkoff style: “Bollocks to all that” Eddy pronounces with rebellious bravado.
Richard Morrison, as the racist, working-class Dad manages to gain sympathy by being as much a victim as a symptom of the society he is trapped in: the “plague”, as it is referred to, of poverty blamed on Thatcher austerity. Philippa Boyle, as Mum, also multi-roles, infusing much needed comedy into the social commentary, while Laura Woods as the widow/wife lends her self-serving materialism a tenderness. In short, the characters are pretty grotesque, but the cast still manage to earn our sympathy to a degree.
The performances are consistently and superbly strong, but the overall effect is slightly tainted by Berkoff glaringly using the characters, especially Eddy, to use his own voice to speak against society. But although this occasionally detracts from the emotive performances, this is an enthralling, challenging production. A bit of an onslaught, admittedly, yet powerfully compelling
As Steven Berkoff’s East continues to get rave reviews at the King’s Head Theatre, we talk to its director,
Can you give a brief synopsis of Steven Berkoff’s East?
East premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1975 and then transferred to the King’s Head Theatre. It’s inspired by Berkoff’s experience of growing up in the East End, and we’re thrown into the lives of five characters … but it’s not a linear narrative, so it’s difficult to say more without giving too much away. It’s full of brilliantly weird interior worlds. Everyone is living moment by moment and we’re swept along with them.
What made you want to revive East?
East is full of passion and wit and energy and frustration. Several of its themes have (to our shame) acute contemporary relevance, but it’s also a very funny play. Everything is heightened – physically, emotionally, intellectually – but everything has to be kept in balance. So it demands a lot from a theatre company; those challenges were immensely appealing to us.
How does it feel to be bringing East back to the King’s Head Theatre where it originally made its London debut? Was it intentional?
Yes, it was … The King’s Head are very aware of their heritage and responsive to it, so creating a new version of one of their early successes has been a really fun and interesting process for all of us. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the theatre suits the play. We’ve learnt unexpected things about East simply from working in that space (although of course the studio has changed in 40 years). And now it’s also likely to be one of the last shows in that King’s Head building, the production has become quite poignant: we’re the last company who will have the opportunity to restage East in its original space.
Do you think East is still relevant to a 21st-century audience, even though the play is now 43 years old?
Definitely. We took the deliberate decision not to stage East as a period piece. This came from the text of the play: its full of calculated contradictory references about when it’s set – an amusing if obscure puzzle alongside casual jokes about time-space trajectories and the Theory of Relativity …Anna Lewis’s design supports this interpretation, especially in the costuming (since we’re working in thrust). The cast could walk down Upper Street in their costumes and no one would blink because modern fashion is more a blend of different times than it’s ever been. So, if you look at individual items there’s vintage mixing with high street, a 60s miniskirt worn with a 90s scrunchie; a popped 50s rockabilly collar with skinny jeans and boots from the 80s. Or, to give another example, at one point our movement director Yvan Karlsson mixes dance styles from several decades to create a club scene.
East has acute general relevance – from stagnant social mobility, gentrification, to the equality and abuse of women, rampant political populism, and racist scapegoating – but it has subjective resonance too. The characters are powerfully individual, but they’re also almost archetypes who could be functioning in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s … they survive today. Their emotions, their relationships, their ambition and frustration and desire, are eternal.
East is known for it’s complex, Shakespearean-like language; did this bring any difficulties to the rehearsal process?
That’s something I love working with as a director, and East is so well written that it guides the speaker through the text if they’re alive to its vocabulary and rhythm. To allow us time to work the text and play with it, I met with each of the cast for a few intensive individual sessions before the main rehearsal process started (since we knew the staging would be demanding). The only real challenge we foresaw was casting: finding people who would thrive on the demands of the text as well as the physical demands of the production was something that Yvan and I were concerned about. But casting director Stephen Moore was magnificent. Fully understanding our requirements and incredibly sensitive to them, he helped us find a highly engaged, intelligent, and physically creative cast who give an unapologetic commitment to every moment.
In four words, can you describe the main themes of the play?
Dreams. Desire. Rebellion. London.
Is there a character within East that particularly resonates with you? If so, why?
That’s really hard to say. If you know the play I imagine you’d expect me to say Sylv, and that’s true up to a point. She does resonate with all the women in the company because she’s negotiating some incredibly frustrating gender expectations, petty (and not so petty) sexual harassment on a daily basis, and other issues you’d really hope weren’t still so familiar for women in 2018. But Mike’s optimism and ability to live in the moment are also strangely appealing, as is Les’s desire to better himself – his ambition and energy. As its director, I have to find a way in with every character.
What do you hope the audience take away with them?
We want them to be entertained but also challenged. Occasionally shocked. East has some very uncomfortable moments, which often come out of nowhere. It’s not a play where you’re supposed to trust the characters, or believe they’re justified in all their actions or opinions, although you might be brutally charmed by them. So if you left with a straightforward uncomplicated liking for any of them – total approval – there would be something wrong. But likewise, you shouldn’t be able to dismiss them…
Are there any plans to take your production of East anywhere else after this run?
I think it’s a case of seeing how it goes. The challenges of a subsequent run would include the fact we decided to stage it in thrust, and in an unusual thrust configuration at that. It’s also such a perfect fit for the King’s Head in other ways, like their shared history, and the atmosphere of the pub which leads you to the theatre. If a really interesting and fitting opportunity existed we’d love to take that on, but, if not, we’re having a great run and we’ll just enjoy that. They are, however, all actors I would love to have the opportunity to work with again.
Putting East to one side, do you have any other exciting projects in the pipeline for the upcoming year?
Atticist has a few projects at various stages of development… one of which it is hoping to produce later this year and which I’ve been developing as a director, together with David Doyle. It’s an astonishing documentary and verbatim piece about a series of murders in Dublin in 1982 – we’re very excited about it and it will be a huge challenge. Beyond that, we’re all freelancers so are seeking interesting opportunities and new collaborations all the time.