Steven Berkoff’s Religion and Anarchy is an evening of five new plays on the theme of anti-Semitism. And a more uneven evening of theatre I can’t remember.
There are flashes of brilliance, certainly, Berkoff’s trademark physicality and cynical wit are still a force to be reckoned with, even at 76. The evening’s final play, Gas, for example, shows three men, stripped to their shorts, tightly writhing in a Nazi gas chamber as it fills with Zyklon B. It’s a mesmerizing and powerful vignette. Brutally lit, the men look at the same time human and symbolic: a fleshy, squirming Rodin sculpture, a living testament to the horrors of the death camps.
But such focus is scarcely maintained throughout the other plays. Line Up, is another Holocaust play about two Jews marching in lines toward the gates of a concentration camp; one line goes left, one right, one for the workers, one for those earmarked for termination, it’s just unclear which is which. Told to a relentless hammer-beat, the play sees characters ‘A’ and ‘B’ trudge rhythmically and exhaustedly towards their final inspection. It’s an intense premise, but it is a play that fails to live up to its promise, it being brought down by its turgid and overwrought dialogue. There is no personality here, no sense of honesty or real insight.
And this is where the rest of the work fail so spectacularly. Plays like How to Train an Anti-Semite and Roast are little more than racist cartoons. The former, the curtain raiser, is a two-hander about two benefit cheats, Dot and Sid, discussing the Jews in Palestine over the kitchen table. Prompted by the newspaper report, Dot (Gillian Wright) develops the theme in a somewhat cavalier fashion by first moving on to so-called Jewish conspiracies, before admitting that what Britain really needs is a new Hitler, someone with the guts to do ‘a bit of spring cleaning’. Sid (Clive Mendus) starts off dismissing his wife’s anti-Semitic ideas, preferring not to save it all up for the Jews but to spew a load of racist bile over all minorities: blacks, Arabs, Turks, you name it. ‘No,’ she says, ‘it’s the Yids behind it all,’ and in about three minutes she has him convinced.
The problem with this play is, for all its shit-bucket language, it tells us nothing about anti-Semitism other than it’s a disgusting set of ideas given voice by a disgusting set people. Well yes, it is, but I knew that, so why am I watching it in the theatre?
And really, anti-Semitism in the UK is rarely paraded about in such Technicolor, in such Goebbels-esque loonyisms. It’s insidious, it’s subtle, it lurks on comment boards round the back of the internet; it sits quietly under a lattice of perfectly plausible and polite views on Gaza or David Irving or the Middle East. If every anti-Semite in the UK spoke like the couple in Religion and Anarchy’s opening play, latent anti-Jewish sentiment wouldn’t be a problem anymore, you’d be able to spot it a mile away.
With the failings of the script so apparent, it is at least heartening that the cast are an un-tempered triumph – Gillian Wright especially. Best known for her role in EastEnders, Wright perfectly captures the Berkoffian physicality the play requires – its hissing teakettles and squeaking pedal bins – but she manages to give her parts a humanity too, an emotional accessibility that really the writing neither warrants nor deserves.
Religion and Anarchy is as bolshie and aggressive an evening of theatre as we might expect from Berkoff, the man who brought us those foul-mouthed masterpieces East, Greek and Sink the Belgrano!. Yet while those plays may not be perfect, they have a vitality and a set of teeth that Religion and Anarchy lacks and lacks badly.