In an exciting new revival, Steven Berkoff’s masterpiece East opens in January at the King’s Head Theatre, where it made its London debut in 1975.
Full of wit, lust, and fury, East remains a startlingly original and influential piece of theatre – a triumphant shout of youth and energy. Its language veers from Shakespearean verse to the depths of profanity without missing a beat, teeming with life in all its murk and glory.
We chatted to Director, Jessica Lazar to find out more.
You are directing Steven Berkoff’s East at The King’s Head Theatre, what can you tell us about it?
East catapults us into East London at some unpinnable (and arguably shifting) moment between the 1950s and 1970s, where we’re lured into the tall tales and private fantasies of its five characters: Mike, Les, and Sylv are a generation full of ambition and desire; Mum and Dad are full of something else, glamorizing their pasts, not necessarily truthfully. Everyone is living moment by moment – and we’re swept along with them. Put simply, it’s a brilliant play.
The show premiered here in 1975, how does it feel to be directing the revival in the same venue?
The chance to stage a new East in its original London venue (East transferred to The King’s Head from Edinburgh Fringe in 1975) has always been exciting, but it has become more poignant since it’s likely to be one of the final shows in the space before the theatre moves on to a new location. So, restaging one of the King’s Head Theatre’s early hits now feels like a fitting celebration of two important parts of late twentieth century British theatre.
What do you find most appealing about Steven Berkoff’s writing?
In East, quasi-Shakespearean text fuses with contemporary language – often Cockney influenced – to create voices that are highly stylized and completely natural at the same time. That balance is something that we hope to be able to echo with the physicality of the play. Berkoff has a master’s ear for vocabulary and rhythm so the tightly woven allusions and Shakespearean rhythms that might sound like pastiche if written by someone else feel fresh and vital. Everything is heightened – physically, emotionally, intellectually. The twists and turns of his profane verse plunge into interior worlds that are both captivating and absurd. There’s so much to work with and draw from.
What have you found most challenging about directing this production of East?
For me, as the director, there have been two main challenges.
Negotiating between tradition and originality has been a key question throughout our process. We need to find the new revolt within our East to meet its dramatic potential. East generated a whole style of British theatre paying homage to it and to Berkoff. Bluntly: how do we stage something that was anarchic and radical, when it now defines a style, while successfully capturing that original spirit of revolution?
The other big challenge has been finding the balance between the visual and aural (in the text and the music), when both are so commanding. When there’s the potential for so much to be going on at once, simplicity becomes incredibly important – but also easy to forget.
How have the cast reacted to the subject matter?
Boadicea, Debra, Jack, James, and Russell are a highly engaged, intelligent, and physically creative cast. They’re very willing to play and explore, to challenge themselves and each other. When I asked them about it directly, Jack explained: ‘East is poignant, it’s robust, it’s visceral. Its boldness is incredibly freeing – it demands an unapologetic commitment to every moment.’
Last year you won the Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award, what did that mean to you as a director?
It was an intense and unexpected experience. An immense privilege, and very encouraging. To share any connection with theatre makers like 1927, or Yaël Farber, or Ella Hickson, or David Grieg, or Key Change (and then this year, Kneehigh) feels, frankly, completely ridiculous.
The award, which transfers one show per year from the Edinburgh Fringe to Off Broadway, gave us the chance to develop the play further, something I’d never had the chance to do before. Returning to a rehearsal room with a company that has already established their complicity was immensely rewarding.
We were joined by a new cast member, which was also helpful as it forced us to explain and rework things which might otherwise have become stale. And then, during our month’s run of LIFE ACCORDING TO SAKI at Fourth Street Theatre, New York Theatre Workshop were incredibly welcoming and supportive, helping us learn about the New York theatre industry which is at once so familiar and very different.
Carol Tambor and Kent Lawson, the duo behind the award, were enthusiastic and encouraging every step of the way, and have continued to be so. As a director, it meant a lot to have such a strong support network and to be granted the opportunity to take our show further – in both senses of the word.
East is at The King’s Head Theatre 10th January – 3rd February 2018