Steven Berkoff needs no help when it comes to making hard-hitting, uncomfortable theater. Nevertheless, a trio of news items has lent disturbing topicality to the world premiere of his latest work in London.
Written and codirected by Berkoff, “Religion and Anarchy” is comprised of five one-act plays and deals with anti-Semitism, both old and supposedly new. It opens with a Cockney couple bickering over “the Yids” and their treatment of “those poor little Arab kids,” and culminates all too logically in a 10-minute depiction of three men’s final moments in a gas chamber.
Shortly after the production opened late last month in the West End’s tiny Jermyn Street Theatre, the language that defines the evening's first play, “How to Train an Anti-Semite,” was splashed across the papers as part of a story about how Britain’s Football Association aims to prevent Tottenham Hotspur fans from calling themselves the “Yid Army.”
Around about the same time, tabloid daily The Daily Mail sparked controversy with a piece on Labour leader Ed Miliband’s late father, Ralph. “The Man Who Hated Britain” is how the newspaper characterized the Jewish, Marxist academic. It was, tweeted John Mann - chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Anti-Semitism - a “classical age-old anti-Semitic smear about disloyal Jews.”
Then came the wedding video. This final, serendipitous news item was ugly as ugly can be. It broke after a young Jewish couple sat down to watch their wedding video and instead found themselves listening to a torrent of anti-Semitic abuse courtesy of their incompetent videographer and his assistant, who began by insulting the bride and didn’t stop at excusing Hitler. Their dialogue might have come straight from “How to Train an Anti-Semite.”
That piece was inspired by a newspaper article about the Middle East, Berkoff tells Haaretz in a telephone interview. He felt the journalist in question was soft-pedaling on their aversion to Israel.
“I thought as a Jew I have possibly a better right to put down their real feelings. I wrote a gross and bilious piece that aired the kind of prejudices that are circulating all the time,” the 76-year-old writer-director-actor explains.
A two-hander, the first play’s tension – and title – derives from Dot (former U.K. soap star Gillian Wright), whose aim is to convert husband Sid (played by Theatre de Complicite veteran Clive Mendus), from an unselective bigot to a bona fide anti-Semite. While she schools him in “the Big Lie,” 9/11 (“They did it for helping the Yids”), and sundry goings-on in “Gaza Park,” her hectic energy and his surly sluggishness make it hard to look away.
Berkoff maintains he can always tell the difference between legitimate criticism of Israel and those “dyed-in-the-wool anti-Semites” who’ve embraced anti-Zionism for convenience. “They have little knowledge of the facts,” he says of the latter group. “There’s a great opportunity now to segue away from your normal anti-Semitic prejudice, which might be mistaken for sheer jealousy or bile, and politicize your venom by being anti-Zionist.”
Having grown up in London’s East End, Berkoff says he is no stranger to prejudice. Fear of the Other is in all of us, he believes, calling it “a gene that gets activated from time to time by various events. But when you have a victim figure as prominent as the Jew, who against all odds defeats the enemy [and] against all odds creates an incredible state – then the focus goes away from the usual prejudices and focuses on them. It’s a kind of poison.”
That poison’s slow drip-drip-drip predates Israel’s birth and is dramatized in “Roast,” the mawkish third play in which a mother (Wright again) tells her son (played by a woman, Lucy Hollis) a gruesome bedtime story about a wicked Jewish father who tosses his son into a hot stove and is then roasted alive himself.
The piece gestures to the blood libel, first set down on paper in 12th-century England, and Berkoff is keenly aware of the darker passages in his nation’s literary heritage. “No other nation has had literature whereby the Jew has been so desecrated and condemned as the English language,” he says, citing Fagin (from Dickens' "Oliver Twist"), Shylock ("The Merchant of Venice") and the King James Bible.
Plays four and five are set in Nazi concentration camps. In keeping with Berkoff’s theory of total theater, their horror is communicated as much through movement as language. In “Line-Up,” Man A (Anthony Barclay) and Man B (Tom Lincoln) march slack-limbed on the spot, trying to decide which line leads to life, which to death. It ends as they head in opposite directions.
The choreography of “Gas” is incongruously beautiful, its three actors (Barclay, Lincoln and Mendus) entwined as they crumple to the ground in torturous, sculptural slow motion, snatches of the Shema leaving their lips along with curses and pleas.
This, Berkoff says, is the first time he’s written explicitly about the Holocaust. His message is plain: “If what we allow in the first play goes on, the final act is the last play.”
And yet for all the challenges of “Line-Up” and “Gas,” the most complex of these five dramas – perhaps even the riskiest – is the second, “Guilt.”
It centers on an elderly Jewish couple, and is told almost entirely through reminiscences about food – his mother’s fishcakes, her mother’s borscht; the herring sold in the East End’s long-gone delis. Hovering silently near the back of the stage is their grown son who rarely visits, and to whom the father no longer speaks.
It’s a play Berkoff is very fond of, and one that comes from an exceptionally personal place. “That was, in a way, my own experience. My own father rejected me in my early years, and wouldn’t speak to me, hardly ever communicated.”
Wright and Mendus bring Polly and Henry to life with large, exaggerated movements and an unabashedly greedy delight in food that stands for all that goes unsaid.
Seen in context of its companion plays, “Guilt” almost dares the audience to detect anti-Semitic intent in a script that has the couple rhapsodize about the “ritual” of buying cheap scraps and slivers of smoked salmon skin. “It’s a Jewish taste – like, that’s what I imagine a Jew would taste like,” Polly sighs. And so a play that might easily have seemed a lazy evocation of Jewish culture – the self-parodying stuff of chicken-soup cliché – becomes a slippery, ingenious piece of theater.
By pointed omission, “Religion and Anarchy” also identifies at a new challenge facing Jewish artists. In a world in which anti-Semitism remains a present-tense threat even as the Holocaust begins to fade from living memory, fresh ways must be found to celebrate Jewish culture, that look defiantly to the future while honoring the past.
“Religion and Anarchy” runs at London’s Jermyn Street Theatre until October 26.