Steven Berkoff’s play articulates the anti-Semitic perceptions of British society, highlighting a prejudice that still permeates through our present culture.
“How do you know?” becomes a significant question to ask oneself when the access to information through newspapers, internet, TV and radio often bombards the individual with false, biased and widely varying conspiracies of a social groups’ political and religious struggles that we may not understand, but believe we have the authority to judge.
This is an intense, beautifully intertwined performance of four short plays poignantly portraying current contradictions, prejudices, and the reality of what it is to be Jewish. The comedic angle of twisted information from today’s internet culture, followed by the stylised caricatures of Jewish communities, sets the performance’s atmosphere as the first two pieces entitled How to Train an Anti-Semite and Guilt shockingly juxtapose with the gradual darkening reality of fanatical Christian beliefs within Roast and Gas’ terrifying depiction of those enslaved and killed within the Nazi concentration camps.
The talented cast of Anthony Barclay, Lucy Hollis, Tom Lincoln, Clive Mendus and Gillian Wright demonstrate immense depth and skill in their polished performance. Mendus and Wright open the night with the satirical illustration of benefit-driven, alcohol, tea, and weed consuming lower-class British society who discuss world politics – a subject they know little about. As they mime the making of tea and lunch – their body language and pronounced accents transform them into these characters.
The seamless transition into the second piece maintains the play’s tempo, with patriotic music changing into softer Jewish music whilst Mendus and Wright swiftly alter their personas into an aging Jewish couple.
The repetitive exchange highlights how history keeps repeating itself, whilst also suggesting that this couple are stuck in memories, unable to truly move forward in their nostalgia. The comical dialogue upon Jewish food is accentuated by their caricature tableaus and excessive gestures, interestingly incorporating many stereotypes of Jewish culture in a larger-than-life type of way.
After the interval, the simplistic set is transformed into a little girl’s (Lucy Hollis) bedroom as her highly religious mother tells a bedtime story of an innocent Jewish boy and his ultimate acceptance of Christianity.
The intolerance intermingled with ignorance – or a simple desire not to see the truth – is alarmingly indoctrinated in generation after generation through fictionalised stories. In some ways this bedtime story mimics and parallels the ambiguous information our culture classifies as truth, demonstrating how easy it is to create and perpetuate the lie of fiction as truth.
The desperation of the final piece, Gas, is difficult to watch as two brave men (Anthony Barclay and Tom Lincoln) walk to their potential death or enslavement – two equally horrifying choices. “We must live to tell this story” becomes their mantra as the men’s debilitating trials threaten to crush their spirit. The heavy drum-beat marks their every footstep, serving as a rhythmic reminder of their fate. Barclay, in his drive to avenge his wife’s death, represents the bitter fighting whilst Lincoln shows strength in his desire to stay alive for his family.
These thought provoking pieces complement each other well, yet Berkoff only touches upon two specific stereotypes within British society – benefit-hungry class ignorance and religious intolerance. By only showcasing select parts of British culture, does Berkoff reveal a society which is collectively prejudiced or simply a narrow sector? Does this racial snobbery still exist within the spectrum of cultures British society has embraced? As he explores British anti-Semitic attitudes, Berkoff risks creating an equally prejudicial view of British culture with the ignorant lower-class and fanatical Christians as our only spokesmen.
The theatre itself, tucked away on Jermyn Street, is an intimate but well designed set that creates a beautiful atmosphere for this intense performance. The use of mime, music, physical theatre, caricatures and stylised dialogues is unique and effective. Whilst I began the performance laughing, by the end I was profoundly moved by the dying words of nameless individuals in the gas chamber. What surprised me most were the last words which remained on their lips “I love you.”