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"EAST" BY STEPHEN BERKOFF - BRIEF APPRECIATION*

Denitza Vlaeva

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The 25th anniversary of Berkoff's play was celebrated quite recently. However, this highly autobiographical piece is still the result the East London born actor/director attempted even as he first presented it in front of the British audience; a product of "exaltation and frivolity" breaking free form the "angst and moan" to which the British theatre had accustomed his visitors. Indeed this five-character piece came across and fired straight at the audience's conscience as an "inexhaustible triumph of living". With its energy makes for any offence the play's open and "real" subject - depiction of life in the London's East End - may have done, thus making that "awful, photographic, slice of realism" - as the author himself classifies it - an experience "truer and larger than life..."

The set was designed as very sparse and minimalist. It consisted of five chairs, a table and a piano, which provided most of the musical background and was partially exposed to the audience, partially situated downstage-right. This composition of the set, although lacking in originality and detail, was crucial for the nature of the production. It simultaneously refrained from distracting the viewers' attention and re-enforced the impact of the performance's unique physicality as the actors virtually created the props of the set using their body movements and gestures.

The use of lights was vital for the impact of the production as well. Not altogether profound, yet witty enough and effective, the visual effects contributed to the avant-garde nature of the piece and emphasised even further the physicality of the performance. A variety of spotlights and streams of light coming from the back of the stage created different patterns of shadows across the performance space and the actors' faces and emphasised their movements.

It appeared that lights coming from most unusual places and creating unconventional visual effects was what the director was most interested in for these were used a number of times in the play. Yet hardly any gelsbut palin white ones were used, except for a particular part of the play which resembled a scene totally out of the piece's context and featured blue and green spotlights showering the whole of the stage - an effect that further emphasised the play's artificial nature.

Credit for this should also be given to the piano which provided the entire musical background and which could be considered part of the set (programme notes indicate that the pianist imrovised with the actors during rehearsals). No significant variety of sound-use could be witnessed apart from the occasional "crystal" and "cosmic" sound effects, used to highlight certain "peculiar" points of the action.

This particular production of "East" once again presented Stephen Berkoff as Antonin Artaud's most distinguished follower. Berkoff incorporates Artuad's ideas on physical ideas with his own training as a mime artist with Jacques Le Coq. The director's other productions whose success is based on this style of performance and staging, include Metamorphosis and The Trial (Kafka), Hamlet, Macbeth and The Fall of the House (Poe).

However, the physicality of the piece struck one as something new and ultimately fresh and therefore acted as an extremely amusing experience for the audience. It remained the production's main strength as with its persistentability to engander discomfort, unease and laughter it also made up for the sparse use of technical devices and served as a tension release (catharsis) to a modern audience.

Credits should be paid to actors Matthew Cullum and Christopher Middleton acting as cockneys Les and Mike. Both Cullum (appearing in Metamorphosis, The Tempest, Mickey and Me, A Midsummer Night's Dream) and Middleton (The Spanish Tragedy, The Mysteries, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of The Shrew) fully reflected Berkoff and respectively Artaud's ideas and concepts of physical theatre. Cullum - also a writer (Gods Of The Vikings) and acting as assistant-director of the production - appeared to have designed his performance exceptionally close to Berkoff's unique fashion, often considered "too big" for the screen and yet enormously effective on stage. (Berkoff's acting appearances include Coriolanus for the stage and films such as A Clockwork Orange, The Passenger, McVicar, The Krays and the recently released Rancid Aluminium). Middleton's appearance, however, was nonetheless just as stylish and original, including unique articulation, swift facial expression and precise, delicate body movements and gestures.

The most unconventional and striking element of the performance, however, the one that brought the whole piece incredibly close to Artaud's ideas, was the unexpected but witty and effective use of mime. It could be witnessed at the most controversial moments of the play as all five actors (these including Tanya Franks as the object of the boys' affection Sylv, Jonathan Linsley - Dad, and Edward Bryant - Mum) used it during their soliloquies, revealing backgrounds and past. It also contributed to the humorous atmosphere and, undoubtedly, to the discomfort of the audience at the times when "Les" indulged in describing his "mighty penis" and "Mike" was colourfully describing his encounters with different types of "cunts". It is interesting to note how language can still shock.

Other interesting and unconventional moments in terms of use of physicality included the "getting out of character" of Cullum and Middleton for a short period of time when they their bodies to represent a motorbike and its rider. Volume and facial expressions were largely exaggerated which was another element contributing to the avant-garde nature of the production. Thus the latter remained true to the play's initial avant-garde fashion and feel for unconventionality. The performance and direction worked superbly to make it resemble an experience combining expert use of text, drama and mime.

 


* Monday, November 1st 1999, The Vaudeville Theatre, London.
The following essay includes a short summary of the plot and background to Berkoff's self-written and -directed play, as well as a brief appreciation of the production as seen at the venue and date stated above.
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© Denitza Vlaeva
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© E-magazine LiterNet, 13.05.2000, № 5 (6)