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New End Theatre presents

Biblical Tales

 

Written and Directed by Steven Berkoff

 

New End Theatre

 

 3 – 28 August 2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

A review by Richard J Thornton for EXTRA! EXTRA!

Ok I admit it, before being asked to this new Berkoff  piece, I wasn’t very well acquainted with his work. In the slant-roofed bar at the New End Theatre, my companion informed me he was famous for being physical, East-End and using structural lighting. After the beautiful orange and green stencilled light flooded the all-white stage in the opening scene, she whispered, ‘Ok, so the light’s not structural’. At this point I decided to discard any pretence of assessing Berkoff against his reputation and instead chose to blind-dive deep into the show in front of me.

Biblical Tales is a series of four well-known stories from the Bible re-written by Berkoff. There’s the loutish Adam with a materialistic Eve; an effeminate David who won’t fight Goliath; a ballerina duo of Samson and Delilah; and an ‘unreasonable’ Moses battling a business-like Pharaoh. Each tale is produced individually with an ensemble cast taking new parts each time, but although separate, the movement is unified. As the stories progress, the motifs of persuasion, conflict and betrayal rise up, and it becomes clear why Berkoff chose these specific tales. It is also no coincidence that each concerns two parties with two different backgrounds or ideologies, each a reflection on a specific current affair or hot topic. Whoever wins out of David or Goliath, proclaims Saul, wins Gaza. And indeed the two men discuss politics such as the Jews having a greater army, with more intelligence, but the Philistines (read Palestine) breed fiercer men.

Being Biblical tales, you’d expect the religious content to be rife, but Berkoff has injected a deeper Jewish discourse into the piece. There’s real woe at Samson’s betrayal of God in favour of Delilah, and perhaps an edge of religious envy at Delilah’s passion for her people, the Philistines, over her lover. Similarly, Moses’ trance-like state as he demands freedom for his people suggests a certain guilt that he has let them suffer for too long and one can’t help but think this message is aimed toward the largely Jewish audience at a very Jewish theatre.

And yet it is a shame that these themes and ideas were not as palatable as they could be. For this show to fully succeed it needs to be able to take the abstract ideals and feelings it seeks to express, transform them into a spoken script, then produce them into a theatrical event. In this case, the middle part of the bridge was missing: the ideas were there, and the production was beautiful, but the writing was inconsistent, tired and rather dry. The Moses tale began with colloquial dialogue, but this style quickly petered out, without reason and without acknowledgment. Adam’s obsession with Porsches is more 1990s than 2010, and the Samson piece left out modern language altogether, which, though inconsistent, was a relief that the whole show would have benefited from. The intellectual and political ideas barely struggled out past the language and the power of the overall aesthetic was denied the showpiece it was designed to augment.

Nevertheless, the aesthetic succeeds. The set is stark, white and stylish. A bare-branched bow extends overhead, dashed with red plastic discs for the apples in the Eden scene, which succinctly comments on the consumer world Eve is desperate to inhabit. Matthew Clancy’s poise as Samson is especially credible, as is Alex Giannini’s swagger as Saul. The lights are a treat, flooding the stage with blue as Anthony Barclay’s slithering Serpent reigns and sharply shocking Mark Frost’s arrogant Pharaoh to submission in the plague of frogs. The elegant positioning of the characters on stage and the slow ballet-like rhythms in which they move adds an eerie and imposing element to the sincerity of the moral messages. Adam and Eve’s morph suits with attached genitalia are a hit, as are the hand-held hedge trimmers Delilah swoops into Samson’s hair. But still, such paraphernalia is not enough to carry the piece alone.

If you’re a fan of Berkoff’s composition, you might not want to resist seeing his work on such an intimate stage, but if you’re looking for a controversial, aggressive or inceptively insightful rethinking of these classic tales of conflict, you might prefer to look somewhere a little more ... I don’t know ... new.

 

 

 

Box Office: 0870 033 2733

www.newendtheatre.co.uk

Mon – Sat at 8.30pm, Sunday 13th August 3.30pm

New End Theatre
27 New End
Hampstead
London
NW3 1JD

Tickets: £18/£16

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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