“Tell how it chanced that we sworn mates were once the deadly poison of each other’s eye…”
On the one hand, Jessica Lazar’s production of Steven Berkoff’s East – returning to the very King’s Head theatre where it made its debut back in 1975 – is a ferociously charismatic whirlwind of stylised beauty and linguistic gymnastics that is an undoubted visceral thrill to watch and listen to. On the other though, there’s a definite sense of style over substance over the length of its two hours, and a problematic niggle about the play’s relationship to violence.
Set in the East End of yore, Berkoff uses his bastardised Shakespeare’n’slang prose style to depict the lives there with an extraordinary vigour. Nabbing a cigarette off a pal and violence, sex and violence, racism and violence, day trips to Southend and violence, bus rides on the number 38 and violence, beans on toast and violence – you get the picture. East in unapologetic in the bleakness of its vision for this substrata of society and in some ways, feel eerily prescient in that.
But there’s no attempt to flesh out character, provide context or offer commentary, which lends a rather wearying tone to the whole affair. There’s only so much nihilistic business you can watch before you too start to wonder what the point of it all is and presenting so much ultra-violence and sexual assault without any accompanying narrative raises uncomfortable questions about its place on the stage.
This is not to deny the seriously impressive work being carried out here. James Craze and Jack Condon as the violent young thugs are an unnerving presence, Boadicea Ricketts and Debra Penny as the various women in their lives do well to work in as much depth as they can, and the whole company – with Russell Barnett as Dad – match a stark physical energy to their reading of the rough poetry. I’m just not sure this was the play to revive.