This first playlet is achieved with bountiful reference not only to the word ‘yid’ and ‘Yiddish’, but also to the female pudendum in its demotic form. The language hails from Berkoff’s cockney-Shakespeare (Cocknearean?) patois which he developed in the 1970s. It is, as such, rooted in an old-fashioned Alf Garnett ‘queen and country’ worldview articulated in Till Death Us Do Part. Such characters and the monarchy itself have however developed a pseudo-glamorous and even introspective appearance in films like The Queen or Skyfall. Moreover the English Defence League and UKIP are now keen to slipstream into the normal, suited practice of pragmatic party politics. Nonetheless, Berkoff taps into a strongly felt attachment to his characters and his second piece is a lyrical invocation of Jewish identity. Set to violin music, this takes the form of another elderly couple reminiscing about kosher food as only Berkoff can – luscious smoked salmon bagels, hot chicken soup with dumplings (not too hard, not too soft) and the best crimson borscht this side of Moscow.
After the interval, Berkoff ploughs on into grimmer, more familiar territory. First he starts with a parable about a Jewish boy who is saved from incineration in an oven by a consecrated wafer he’s slipped into his pocket. But where this is a slightly juvenile anti-Christian fairy tale disavowing Judaism’s own roots in fantastical storytelling, the last two pieces are altogether tougher. In the first of these, two broken men march in step to Auschwitz - desperately trying to identify some reason for living, be it pride or responsibility to posterity. The last piece, ‘Gas’, then features three men writhing like Michelangelo’s Dying Slave in a darkened chamber. Clearly being gassed in a concentration camp, the abyssal horror of this is all but impossible to reproduce in a cosy off-West End theatre.
Exactly what message we are meant to take from this quintet of plays, directed by Berkoff and Max Barton, is hard to pinpoint, but didactic it surely is. Clive Mendus and Gillian Wright handle the Parisian mime vigorously as the older couples, while Lucy Hollis makes a nicely horrified child being fed a poisonous bedtime story. In their turn, Anthony Barclay and Tom Lincoln are harrowing as the two men marching to Auschwitz. And yet these are all well-trodden representations of anti-Semitism and its insidious new forms are left unexplored. These are new forms that may spring from a resentment at the special status afforded to Jews by their food, their speech, the holocaust, or even by their humour. By not reaching out beyond such caricatures, this production courts the very ghettoisation it laments.
Perhaps it’s time to abandon the idea that there’s anything sacred about cultural identity at all.
Patrick Marmion is a freelance journalist, playwright, founder of Soapbox debating forum and a part-time tutor at the University of Kent. Visit his website here: www.patrickmarmion.co.uk.
Steven Berkoff: Religion and Anarchy is playing until 26 October 2013 at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London. To book visit the Jermyn’s website or call 0207 287 2875.