Social, Cultural & Historical Essay
Social, Cultural & Historical
Steven Berkoff is one of the most influential figures of the turn of the century in British Theatre. As an actor, director and playwright and general nonconformist Berkoff tried to change theatre and encourage us to think in terms of ‘Total Theatre’, where the actor-audience relationship is immediate and where the actors, through expressive physicality and language, mould their environment. Steven Berkoff grew up in the East End of London to a Jewish family. He originally wanted to be a musician but was denied that opportunity, this frustration is conveyed through his acting as uses his body like an instrument.
In ‘East’ he deals with what he calls the ‘prime basic elements’, these were investigations into his childhood which were the source for his inspiration. He brings to life emotions that had been suppressed in him for along time, he wanted to be bold and outrageous; to show how life was really like in his childhood. He tries to authenticate his notoriety and ‘in-yer-face’ style of performing. Berkoff wants to project himself, powered by the need for self-justification, power and his own unquenchable anger.
In his career after ‘East’ took great pains to associate himself with infamy. Berkoff liked to be linked to the Kray twins, Ronnie and Reggie. They chose to be criminals as opposed to becoming ones because of their social insecurity; the Kray’s had a desire for upward social mobility, adopting Italian-style suits as Berkoff notes ‘ they were always immaculately turned out in dark suits and ties. ‘ He acted the two convicted murders ‘drama’ by taking the role of the real life villain George Cornel in a film.
Berkoff was a prominent showbiz guest at Reggie Kray’s funeral and narrated the television documentary Reggie Kay: The Final Word shortly before the gangster’s death. It did not stop there. He aligned himself with another Cockney criminal, the ‘Great Train Robber’ Ronnie Biggs. Although he clams in an interview that he wanted to do ‘Hamlet not fucking Beverly Hills Cop’, which may appear strange considering the type of reputation he was building up for himself. William Shakespeare was also a key influence and Berkoff tried to ‘take it back to the streets’ where it originated with its sexual intent.
Berkoff wrote two plays criticising Christianity and its treatment of the Jews who were victimised and persecuted throughout history, something he likes to apply to himself, systematically criticised and marginalised by the Establishment. Berkoff was interested in Commedia dell’Arte, a set of principles developed by a Renaissance dance and drama academy in Paris, which involved skilled actors conveying their message through highly stylised movement and gestures. He was greatly influence by Antonin Artaud, a contemporary non-realist, and his surrealist ideas. Artaud thought that realism was a betrayal of the theatre’s purpose.
Between 1929-35 he formed his ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ and although he only managed to put on one play, The Cenci in 1935, he is now regarded as a highly influential figure. He wanted to ‘crush and hypnotise the sensibility of the spectator’. This is obvious as Berkoff sets out to shock his audience, wake them up to the reality of the world outside. He went to Lecoq in Paris which specialised in training mime artists like Jean-Louis Barrault who was also a influence. A French newspaper once referred to him as a ‘new Artaud’ after he evoked Artaud’s name, ideas, phrases and images in his plays ‘Metamorphosis’ and ‘The Trial’.
This is also reflected in East where miming is used a great deal. Berkoff wanted to show the thoughts and emotions of a fifteen year old. At fifteen, he says, people have few arguments just an insatiable desire for ‘love and affections, skill, excitement and suits’. This is still relevant today as people spend more money on cloths and jewellery to look good and attract the other sex and have a desire for excitement that is shown through the growing vandalism and a craze called ‘happy slapping’.
He takes these themes and makes them into ‘mythic symbols’ to get rid of the day-to-day naturalism or realism of normal theatre and wake people up. It was an attempt to be bold, daring, outrageous enabling me to confess my innermost thoughts… just as we did as teenagers’. He wrote ‘East’ in a mood of excitement and frivolity. Berkoff wrote it to be bold and to challenge the established naturalistic theatre and establishment. Throughout his plays, in the words of Dominic Dromgoole, he ‘rants and rages’, although what it is he is angry with is sometimes unclear.
Most of the time it is just ‘them’, maybe the ruling classes, the parasitic, the inauthentic or it could be all of them. Above all Berkoff is alive. There may be no coherent intellectual message in his plays, but his anger is real and substantial. East is a testament to the East End youth of his day, where there was no holding back and no reserve – ‘You lived the moment and vitally held on to it… you said what you thought and did what you felt’. He despised the dead. ‘The living corpses – slack mouthed and brains waiting for 6p.
m. or death… standing there like it was a way of life’. He recognised what he saw as the cycle of life in the East End. The young would be hot-blooded and full of vigour, like the character of Dad who used to fight with the brownshirts against the Jews for what he thought was to be a better future, but then once he got married and settled down he lost his fiery spirit, for an example he goes on this tirade about his fights down Cable Street with the ‘kikes’ but the suddenly ‘What’s the time?…
We’ve missed Crossroads’. The same is the case with Mum who dreamt of things higher that her social position, ‘drink champagne and discuss our next production of Verdi’s Othello’, but settled for what was socially expected of her. Berkoff shows this in Sylv’s ‘Speech of Resolution’ in which she determines that she ‘will not end our days like this’, but she will as Mike asks for Les to donate him a snout – the ‘opium’ that allows them to continue suffering under the weight of dull and depressing jobs.
In one of Mike’s speeches he declares ‘we get what we are’. He never gets girls above his class because they are not his type – people are attracted to others of similar interests and thought. This is true of today’s world in which working class people who live off benefits win the lottery but stay the same. They don’t, at the moment of their winnings, become educated and well spoken – they no desire to. The class system in today’s society is brought about not by wealth or poverty but by the limits people set themselves.
There is no desire for knowledge or wisdom, all there is the want for a big TV, a big car and lots of money. The society we live in has created an intellectually bankrupt middle-class of people who have well paid jobs, mostly extremely tedious or containing some health hazard, just so that they can go home and watch Season 3 of Desperate Housewives on widescreen with surround sound. These people did want to escape from their material and intellectual poverty, but failed; they managed to get a reasonable salary and are satisfied with money and ignorance.
Steven Berkoff is, although marginalised by much of the mainstream establishment, an undeniable influence on contemporary theatre, particularly up-and-coming generation of actors, playwrights and directors. ‘East’ is cited as the main influence for the ‘in-yer-face’ theatre phenomenon of the 1990’s, particularly plays like ‘Trainspotting’, Harry Gibson’s stage adaptation of Irvine Walsh’s book. He is also credited with bringing more young people to the theatre by providing it with a ‘shot up the arm’ which allowed it to shake off the shackles of naturalism.
In 1999 it was the twenty-fifth anniversary of East, Berkoff celebrated by having ‘East’ performed in the Vaudeville Theatre, thereby bringing the ‘East End’ to the West End and thus achieving some sort of establishment recognition. Paradoxically, this was what he wants to be renowned, to be heard. Berkoff has no serious agenda for change; he is not a socially conscious playwright and actor desiring to change the views of his audience. He is powered by the desire to express his ‘self’. He has not been involved in anything seriously beyond his own ego.