Looking East
Chapter Two

Matthew Scurfield I COULD BE ANYONE, all rights reserved.

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I may not have come from the same background as Steven Berkoff, but my experience of the Oxbridge divide had left me with enough fury in my gut to want to blow the door off its hinges.

I saw in Steven the same frustration and anger as in myself and so many mates from my Cambridge days.

After years of smouldering in the dark, working theatre with Steven was to light the blue touch paper, reawaken a sleeping dragon, an explosive boiling point of hurt and pain, which had been unsafely and stoically tucked away. Here the voice of discontent was pummelled, beaten and mashed, then channelled through the creative doorway of the stage into the freeways of the expressionist mask.

Anger may be the liberals’ dirty word, but in playing the ring with Steven I came to realise how anger and energy are one and the same. When a high-voltage body of energy is misdirected it becomes destructive, but when it is wired creatively it gives us an enormous amount of essential power.

By the time our first play together had finished, we were established on the line as true allies.

Although providence may not have set up our camp on the other side of the pond, it wasn’t long before we got our act together on the home front. Our enthusiasm to challenge the main guard may at times have seen us wearing the very crown we wanted to avenge; but it would be far too simplistic to make us into the scapegoat, as many of our critics chose to do.

We had infiltrated the British stage against all odds, at a time when it was considered outrageous blasphemy for us to do so. We held the mirror up to an institution tacked together by a straitjacket of Oxbridge respectability. East was pretty much something those varsity boys tried to sweep under the carpet of irrelevancy and sometimes the critics were damning to the point of disgust, but our conviction defied even these onslaughts.

Steven’s vitriolic attack on his own background rips through his play East. The poetry constantly tells us how the characters want to be anywhere but in their own backyard. Here was theatre which wasn’t ashamed to magnify the reality of who we are, to reveal the truth behind the sentimental working-class rags, which had been scattered at the feet of magnanimous polite theatregoers for so long. This was no flippant liberal idealism. This was a punch of social unrest, cutting a swathe through the conventional British theatrical institutions of the day. This was a place where the warrior stands proud with the beast. No need for self-conscious embarrassment, spew forth and link the verbiage with gut wrenching visceral communication at its most honest.

No wonder his early plays provided such a vehicle for my buried senses.

There is a beautifully written speech of resolution at the end of East given by the character Sylv and when I heard Anna Nygh’s rendition on the first night, I wept. It was as if it were written for a large part of me, which I had all but buried in a dead and bitter heart. There's nothing romantic about the characters in East, nevertheless it oozes with poetic justice and I think that's why so many actors thought it was the play of its time.