Playwrights > Steven Berkoff discussion

Sit and Shiver


Iain Fisher:
Good stuff on the background of Steven's latest play Sit and Shiver:

"...Cable Street, scene of the anti-fascist riots of 1936, is just round the corner. Berkoff's Uncle Sam, memorialised in his new play Sit and Shiver, was a hero of those events, when Jews, radicals and dockworkers stood up to Oswald Mosley's blackshirts; Sam is commemorated in a Cable Street mural that Berkoff calls "the greatest piece of art in England - and it's on a wall".

...Berkoff was born in Mother Levey's nursing home in Vallance Road, in the heart of the criminal Kray twins' manor. After brief periods in Luton (evacuation during the war) and New York (a doomed mission of "New World, new work" with his parents and older sister, Beryl) he returned to the East End as a kind of outsider.

...Sit and Shiver refers to the Jewish custom of a seven-day domestic observance for the dead. That ceremonial, "sitting shivah," is deliberately misheard in the title, as it was for the young Berkoff who was mystified by the coldness and solemnity of the process. His play is a way of both expressing that dismay, and glorifying the vitality of East End life in those days; a trip down the vibrant Petticoat Lane of poverty and optimism, pickles and bagels, energy and ambition.

What happened to all that? There were 100,000 Jews in the East End even before the last war. It was a vibrant melting-pot with the crucial ingredient of looking outwards. Berkoff's early plays East and West reflect this atmosphere exactly: you enjoyed where you lived, but you were looking to go elsewhere, you went "up west" on a Saturday or a Sunday, you wore your best suit. "This," says Berkoff, "was fantastic, triumphant". Every Sunday he went dancing in the Lyceum off the Aldwych, spruced up in an electric blue zoot suit and stiff white collar.

...Berkoff's Uncle Sam was the sort of articulate, impassioned and inquisitive Communist who transformed the East End. His father's family were from Bucharest, his mother's from Odessa. Sam, according to Berkoff, couldn't stop talking. His conversation was peppered with quotes from Shaw, Kropotkin, Shakespeare, Marx and Lenin. He liked Aldous Huxley, and he met Aldous Huxley. He was a trouser-cutter, and he went blind. Another uncle also went blind, but that was because he was a boxer who had been mauled by the great Jimmy Wilde.

...And at its centre is a family mystery. The pain, the humiliation, of this may explain why Berkoff himself - married twice, estranged from his sister, with a middle-aged daughter he rarely sees, now with the German pianist Clara Fischer - is so enthralled by his background. His own roots have been transformed into a theatre of real life."

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