Photograph: Alex Brenner
East is play that doesn’t brook half measures. Everything is heightened – physically, emotionally, intellectually. The twists and turns of its profane verse plunge into interior worlds that are both captivating and absurd.
Linguistically, I think it is a masterpiece. In East, Berkoff established a style that’s now instantly recognisable, and has been highly influential: quasi-Shakespearean text fuses with contemporary language to create compelling stylized voices. It’s tightly woven and highly allusive. But Berkoff is never writing Shakespearean pastiche, because he has a master’s ear for vocabulary and rhythm.
Dramatically East is, perhaps unsurprisingly, equally striking. Finding the balance between the visual and aural (in text and music), when both are so commanding, is one of the challenges of staging it. When there’s the potential for so much to be going on at once, simplicity becomes incredibly important, and incredibly easy to forget. Boadicea, Debra, Jack, James, and Russell are a highly engaged, intelligent, and physically creative cast. In the rehearsal room they have shown a great willingness to play and explore, to challenge themselves and each other.
Negotiating between tradition and originality has been another key question throughout our process. East inspired a breed 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, and successfully capture that original spirit of revolution?
And then, there is the question of time period. East is full of calculated contradictory references – we skitter from the early 1970s to mid-1950s and back in as little as a few words. The play shuns a linear plot, instead alighting on vivid moments to build up a composite picture of a set of lives. Some moments occur several times from different points of view. Some facts are impossible to reconcile. Much is inferred. Many things are subjective. People lie. The characters are at once powerfully individual, and almost archetypes. They can be recognized in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s – arguably, in some form, they survive today.