Thirty-five years after its premiere, Steven Berkoff’s first original play returns to its spiritual homeland as part of the 3rd annual East Festival. Goldrush Entertainment’s full-blooded production of East relishes the heightened visceral language of Berkoff’s ‘punk-Shakespearean’ verse, embodied in a highly physical performance style which keeps this play alive and kicking today.
With no set design and no story to speak of, the attention is very much on the personalities of the five EastEnders who reveal the desires and frustrations which dominate their daily existence, with the cast sitting on chairs at the back of the stage before coming forward to interact with each other or more often give in yer face monologues direct to the audience.
Mike and Les are two young bloods revelling in parodic macho posturing, who find the only escape from their dead-end lives in casual sex or violence, each of which seems to give them equally ecstatic relief. In a male-dominated world Sylv exploits her female sexuality to get what she wants, while the misogynistic, racist Dad rants about how fings ain’t wot they used to be and the long-suffering, downtrodden Mum has given up hope a long time ago.
Perhaps influenced by Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (in which Berkoff had a small part in the film playing one of the hoods), East’s richly stylized dialogue is an extraordinary mixture of cod Shakespeare and cockney slang, with the frequent obscenities raised to a poetic level. This is complemented by an expressive physicality in the performances which intensifies the aggressive street-culture atmosphere.
Fela Oke directs his committed multicultural cast with assurance, even if the results are sometimes cartoonish rather than larger than life. Adrian Benn’s Mike is a vernacular bard, boasting of his sleazy lifestyle with expansive gestures and lip-smacking glee, while Josh Nawras’ strutting, cocksure Les sticks two fingers and more up to authority in his drive for sensual oblivion. Tawny Cortes’ Sylv is determined to give as good as she gets, while Safron Beck’s Mum has retreated into numb passivity and Chris Knott’s Dad’s nostalgic reminiscences of marching with Oswald Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts in the 1930s East End are frighteningly funny.
The overall effect is a strangely exhilarating and darkly comic portrait of a regressive, brutalized way of life which was starting to die out in the 1970s but still survives in BNP-supporting neighbourhoods in the East End today.