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Berkoff’s ‘Londons’: Staging Psycho-geographies of the feared and the ecstatic

John Keefe

In 1977, Steven Berkoff wrote of the London Theatre Group as being,

… a collection of actors welded together by a common purpose. To express drama in the most vital way imaginable; to perform at the height of one’s power with all available means. That is, through the spoken word, gesture, mime and music. Sometimes the emphasis on one, sometimes on the other. (Producers note, East, 1978: 11)

In this paper, I wish to look at certain aspects of his ‘London plays’, drawing on East, Greek, Decadence and West. Through the approach to theatre that elsewhere I have called ‘physical theatres’, I suggest Berkoff ‘physicalises’ London (or ‘Londons’ as I shall argue). He plays with London ‘with all available means’ as sites of the body, sites of memory, sites of seduction. These playings become ‘agons’ of real- and psycho-geographies of the feared and the ecstatic.

The Literary; compare and contrast
But, to begin with the literary; compare and contrast …

A grey dusty withered evening in London city has not a hopeful aspect. The closed warehouses and offices have an air of death about them … The towers and steeples of the many house-encompassed churches, dark and dingy as the sky that seems descending on them, are no relief … The set of humanity outward from the City is as a set of prisoners departing from goal … (Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, 1865/1997: 386)

Here, House writes of Dickens’ ‘persons and scenes’ as ‘one almost hallucinatory experience succeeded by another’ (ibid: xiii). This hallucinatory sense also marks Eliot’s vision of a dead or at least semi-necromantic London as an ‘unreal city’ where,

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many.
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled.
And each man fixed his eye before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street…

Eliot, The Waste Land, 1922/1974: 65)

Such sites of memory and invoking of the fallen, such ‘airs of death’ become actualities of death. The incident during the recent G20 demonstrations; in the stabbings, shootings and other violence reported weekly and monthly; the accidents of vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists; and the simple deaths of everyday life.

Such hallucinations turn into physicalised nightmares and horrors; different sets and flows of humanity.


Meanwhile the rats head down Edgware Road up to Oxford Street preparing to turn right into Bond Street / get down Piccadilly and raid Fortnums, pick up their mates at Fortes and join to make all resistance impossible…


The rats march across Piccadilly avoiding Soho where the food is dangerous even for rats, heading down to the Strand / collect the Savoy contingent, overfat rats not sleek for battle… with rotten teeth head across Waterloo Bridge and the National Theatre trying to wake the theatre rats who have been long in coma…
(Greek 1982: 32)

Such writing as Dickens and Eliot is evocative, resonant, appealing to the literary imagination by invoking London as setting, as character, as vision. In a similar way, Sinclair’s evocations of London, whether Hackney, the Olympic site, or the concrete-tarmac ring that now marks and ‘gates’ London many miles beyond the original walls appeal to certain forms of poetic imagination.But, simply because it is theatre, Berkoff’s ‘total theatre’ is visceral; not only describing London but also physicalising the parts and layers of London through the bodies of his actors, the word- and body-scapes they draw, the knowing spectator who blends real and imagined experiences.

Thus the grey prisoners and sullen crowds become phantasmagoric flows of rats taking over that despised London just as the plague takes over Thebes. Familiar streets and locations are mapped as nightmare, as mean streets; become ‘urban noirs’ that have a particular and peculiar effect on us as citizens and spectators.

The act of writing London is then a double act: of reading as rereading and rewriting, of invocation and disclosure … of what is already at work, and which, in returning, appears as the traces of multiple cultures, histories and events. (Wolfreys, 2004: 129)

But by their nature, such traces and multiples cannot act on a singular London but on the plurality of London; that is, properly speaking, ‘Londons’. With his own rewriting and reworking of traces, histories and events for the stage Berkoff mythologises the plural city that we recognise and fear and are thrilled by. We are given not a London, but ‘Londons’ through concrete and cultural topographies (marks on the ground), and phantasmagoric psycho-geographies (marks of the mind and imagination); ‘Londons’ that both repel and seduce.

The Bodies of ‘Londons’ not London
Hence the ‘Londons’ of the title; there can be no one place signified by ‘London’ except (at its worst, the ‘brand’) or as common sense usage or the metropolitan entity we identify. Thus, the ring or boundary identified by Sinclair’s ‘orbital’ contains not a single thing but rather, the plurality subsumed into that easy and convenient entity and signifier. The layers of past and present (the sites of the returning ‘traces’), the juxtaposed contradictions of one borough to another, one neighbourhood to another, the disparities of wealth, amenities, lifestyles and life chances that sit side by side, above and below each other. Such a framing allows the perceiving and representing of ‘Londons’ as the deeper levels of the feared and the ecstatic for characters and spectators alike. To borrow Mike Pearson’s resonant phrase, ‘Londons’ that become ‘deep maps’ of embodied real- and psycho-geographies. These maps are given human form as an embodied and seductive trope.

So, Ackroyd opens his biography with the striking image of London as ‘the city as body’. Here the ‘byways resemble veins’ and the parks it’s lungs (1). Its size is monstrous and disproportionate. This dystopic ‘wen’ chimes with Berkoff’s own dyspeptic and nightmarish real imaginings. But whilst Berkoff plays with this same image, he does so in terms of the theatrical and the performative; putting the body (as it is in all theatres) as the ambiguous, doubly present centre of his stage playing, showing us the bodies that inhabit his Londons.

Such theatre demands to be acted out; I will do what I can with Berkoff’s words –- dialogue and didascalia

They all mime a tube in rush hour, the words of the Chorus syncopating with the train


I’d get up at seven to go to work …/ I would crush myself in the tube and others behind me
would crush and we’d all get crushed together/… and some schemer would put a foot in the door and attempt
to weld himself into the compost heap quivering together/… Oxford Circus / and the train heaves us like a bad case
of diarrhoea/ … (West, 1994: 73)

On the table are toast, a teapot with steaming tea, a tureen of baked beans, a packet of margerine – in fact the normal tea time scene. They sit around the table and eat. During DAD’s long speech he eventually destroys everything on the table in nostalgic fury. The table and contents become a metaphor for the battle of Cable Street -his rage becomes monstrous and gargantuan.


… That beautiful Summer in ’38 was it? — When we marched six abreast to Whitechapel — beautiful it were — healthy young British men and women — a few wooden clubs just in case they got stroppy down there … Ozzie marching at our head … but our lads, what did they do, not turn back … I’ll tell you what happened … by not getting down Whitechapel — Alie Street, Commercial Road and Cable Street, Leman Street we opened the floodgates for the rest — the Pandora’s bleeding box opened and the rest of the horrors poured in. That’s what happened mate.
(East: 20-23)

It is perhaps in the great fights that Berkoff releases images of a delirium that both appal and appeal. Epic battles are staged between ‘Colossi who bestride the Commercial Road’ behind the Whitechapel cinema, between Eddy and his rival in a greasy café in Hounslow.

Razors flash, iron splits skulls, ‘ribs splinter’, ‘eyes gouged’; two pages of word-pictures giving us a fight club of the Hackney Marshes. But the stage directions for the body hold the centre of all these evocations: ‘They mime fight’ (Decadence) and ‘Mike acts the battle’ (West).Or again: ‘he destroys everything on the table… the table and contents become a metaphor for the battle of Cable Street’. (East) These become a physicalising of these ‘Londons’. Of choreographies of stylised movement and words that rest on the transforming body of the actor, perhaps on a promiscuity of energy, on the spectator’s imagination.

These scenes are enacted across the ‘Londons’ of Berkoff’s wastelands. These stretch from Bethnal Green to Hackney, from East Cheam to WC2 and Giovanni’s, from Tufnell Park to an unspecified ‘paradise’ that is somewhere ’west’. We follow through streets and tube journeys as stage narratives map conflicts and work and lovings that are real and sur-real.But they are also embodied narratives of lived and wished for histories, narratives of real and mythic landscapes. Of what Sinclair calls, in one of his more resonant terms, ‘memory-terrains’ (Sinclair, 2009: 8) here presented as theatres.

Word and Body and Spectator
We –- spectator –- watch and hear some ‘other’ -– actor -– embody and present some further ‘other’ –- character –- recognised as embodying and reflecting us. This works and can only work because the spectator is willing to accept such a fiction through a knowing suspension of disbelief. I am willing to enter that fiction as if forms of reality through my knowing imagination. Theatre is and reflects those forms of habitus, structures of feelings, reciprocal ‘lookings’ that mirror our being in the world. But this achieved by more than just words. Boireau characterises Berkoff’s theatre as an orgy of language. Yes, it is; as Boireau quotes Berkoff ‘ My theatre is verbal’ (82). But as I have shown already (and discussed by Boireau), it is a theatre of the embodied word; for Berkoff:

There is no instrument, canvas, pen or stone, just the voice and the body … Acting for me is the closest metaphor to human sacrifice on the stage. (Berkoff, 1978: 7)

Whilst acknowledging his relishing of an Artaudian rhetoric, Berkoff’s version of ‘sharing the breath’ remains that of the stage, not the ritual, whilst drawing on a ritualised energy. To borrow from de Certeau, Berkoff’s theatre is a staging of the relationship between talk, language and action; not in everyday life but in pictures of everyday life, whether experienced, feared, dreamed of or as ecstasies and frissons of desire.Thus, because of theatre’s inherent synchretic nature, it is also an orgy of the actor’s body. Because of theatre’s dialectical nature it is also an orgy of the spectators body and his/hers embodied knowing imagination. The actors and the spectator share the body as text, as referent and signifier. As I watch and listen, I share that which the actor is representing; I feel ideas, think about feelings. Berkoff’s theatres are epic narratives set in grotesque, carnivalesque, sur-real, embodied landscapes of decay, plunder, blood, sex, violence, bigotry. But Berkoff also gives a promiscuous sensuality to these horrors, an attracting vividness that carries its own seductions as I enter these narratives and journey across landscapes of the urban margins of all kinds, (those ‘urban noirs’ referred to earlier).

These are not the romanticised, foppish meanderings of the flâneur; rather odysseys through and across such marginalised ‘Londons’. Nor are they the hallucinatory journeys of a Nadja; the solipsistic, self-concerned wanderings of a surrealism in which I lose my way. Rather these are journeys of the sur-real, yet rooted in the political and cultural truths that is the ‘Londons’ that I live in and have lived in. This is a rejection of the ennui of the flâneur and Nadja in favour of the raw vitality of the city; an energy arising from the streets and wastelands.These are not journeys and phantasmagorias of fears and ecstasies that, pace Nic Ridout, cause me embarrassment as the plays address me directly and indirectly. Rather, I enjoy (perhaps guiltily as I squirm at the prejudices and bigotries and uncomfortable truths expressed) the involvement and engagement that is common to all theatres. These become journeys and deep maps of the ‘agons’ of real- and psycho-geographies, and thus of fear and ecstasy and seduction. I journey in worlds that are familiar (through memory that remembers and mythologises and alters what is remembered), strange or unknown but vaguely recognised and so becoming palimpsests of the layers and traces of ‘Londons’.

Memory is a threshold into conflicting experiences and emotions:

It’s a trap, the East End; to be sentimental and full of cosy longing for the ‘good old days’… (Wesker)

A memory that puts a patina of soft nostalgia over harsh realities placed to one side. Or:

East could be the east side of any city where the unveneered blast off at each other … (Berkoff, 1978: 9)

The violence that streamed through the streets like an all-pervading effluence… the beast of frustration and anger whose hunger is appeased by … scraps… (Berkoff,1994: 97)

A differently painted nostalgia of marks and nightmares and, perhaps, memories that are one-sided (as they always are?). A nostalgia that is bleak and scabrous and vicarious in its playing with a fear as well as a thrill of what we recognise.

Of Fear and Ecstasy
One of the themes of this essay is that fear and ecstasy are not in opposition to each other but (like comedy and tragedy) are in a dialectical, symbiotic relationship at the centre of our fictions and narratives. Of course, fear is a discrete state in itself. As such, the feared is usually rooted in those things that are of the ‘other’ of many kinds. Thus, in Totality and Infinity, Levinas works from a theory of inter-subjectivity predicated on an interpretation of the self in relation to ‘l’autre’-‘autrui’, the ‘other’-‘other persons’. But because of his commitment to an independent Other of a deistic nature, so Levinas’ notion of ‘other’ at all levels remains one of kinds of ‘unknowing’, that which cannot be directly experienced and thus feared.

These are psychological states; matters of belief, of how the world is viewed and framed and claimed. But I would suggest that such fear and the ‘other’ itself has an obverse face, other viewing. We know others as others know us – as outlined above, we live in states of habitus and structures of feeling and mutual recognition. That is, cultural and psychological events and states acting on each other.

It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we can explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it … Soon after we can see, we are aware that we can also be seen. The eye of the other combines with our own eye to make it fully credible that we are part of the visible world. (Berger 1972: 7, 9)

Berkoff confronts us with our desire to look and be looked at as we see his characters ‘eying’ each other, ‘clocking’ each other, share Les’ reverie about ‘snatch on the 38 bus’ (East, sc. 11). We are drawn vicariously into this world of desiring and dangerous looking. By such drawing–in, Berkoff shows us an unwinding fear of what we recognise in ourselves, that we recoil from in its manifest energy of raw sex and violence but which we are also attracted to, seduced by as enacted before us. This is the psychology of the ecstatic.

We may associate the ecstatic with a visionary or heightened state; what Mannheim formulated as a necessary occasional ‘severing’ from the here-and-now (Ennis, 1967: 40); a counterpart to everyday life. But I would argue there is an alternative to this view. In the context of this paper’s subjects, I would prefer to adapt I.A. Richard’s notion of the ecstatic as a heightened, ‘densely packed version’ of the events of a ‘shared common humanity’ (ibid: 42); in other words, of the shared habitus and structures of feeling by which we live. What is shared in Berkoff’s worlds may seem of limited value to the respectable citizen, or not shared at all.

As with other characters of the social margins (Sandford’s Cathy Come Home, 1966/1976; Bond’s Saved, 1965/1966; Kane’s Blasted, 1995), we are shown that we would want to shy away from or prefer to ignore. What we fear. But, of course, as contrary creatures we are also drawn to what we fear; we wish to experience directly but at a distance. We wish to experience the ecstasy of the vicarious thrill when our shared humanity is taken to uncommon heights.

Fear may be regarded as a form of ‘necessary occasional severing’ but within the right circumstances –- zones of safety –- fear becomes the root of thrilling, vicarious pleasure; the safety of the frisson as a shared, embodied experience. Here shared and entered through (the sort-of-safety-of) Berkoff’s densely packed, embodied theatres and journeys of word-scapes and body-scapes. Journeys of (psycho-)geographies as we are taken across the real landscapes of recognised ‘Londons’ and the semiotic landscapes of envisioned ‘Londons’. Journeys at their most venal as aging movie stars cruise the M1 looking for rough trade (East: 39) or Helen enacts the orgasmic qualities of the hunt as she rides Steve-as-horse (Decadence: 12).

Journeys seen at their most ecstatic perhaps in Eddy’s rejection of Oedipal taboo and the feared as he embraces his paradise in the west:


Why should I tear my eyes out Greek style, why should you hang yourself… (Mother twice known) / exit from
paradise / entrance to heaven. (Greek: 52)

And we become seduced by these journeys of fear and ecstasy. Of course, emotions and psychologies such as fear and ecstasy are unstable, may take us to places we do not enjoy. On the other hand, fear and ecstasy are stimulants to further awareness. We come back to the function of theatre. We place ourselves and are taken into the frames of embodied mise-en-scènes of a nature that we would normally turn away from; in the case of Berkoff, memory-terrains of violence and sex that repel and seduce and enlighten.

The dangerous seductions of theatre
Having slighted the romanticising of certain modernisms, Berkoff’s own romanticising tendencies must be acknowledged. The most ferocious fights with grievous injuries are given a hue of glamour. The abuse of women is given an ‘it’s-all-right-its-only-the-lads’ rough attractiveness. The images of street and family life that are both offensive, yet are given a tinge of nostalgia that becomes dangerous memory. Is this to be excused as the writing ‘to exorcise certain demons’ (East: 9) with the unavoidable patinas and partialities already referred to? I would suggest it is an open question, given our tendency to enjoy what is meant to be beyond the pale.

Whether on the street or in representations of the street we are voyeurs; toward life as real or as represented, we are voyeurs. Not in the obsessions and fetishes of a scoptophilia, but simply drawn to and enjoying looking and being looked at.

The following morning the billiard hall had the largest Sunday morning turnout for years. Half the neighbourhood seemed to have arrived to see how Reggie and Ronnie were getting on … The fight took place behind the closed doors … blood and broken glass everywhere. Two of the dockers were out cold. Ronnie Kray had to be dragged off the third … (John Pearson, 1973: 77)


We thought now fuck this for a laugh!


But we could hardly turn back now with 5 and 50 Chinas egging us on there, with shouts of come on Les …


Or destroy him Mike … (East: 17)

We turn such characters into sacred monsters, offering the fear as demanded and taking the ecstasy as offered.

We look and stare (and sometimes gaze) as part of being human in the world. Whether as spectators in the streets or in the theatre we are drawn to that we would not wish upon ourselves and-or others. But this is another uncomfortable truth about theatres and ourselves; how we as spectators become seduced by scenes of ‘other’ actions. Boltanski writes

The fact remains that viewing suffering is especially problematic when the object of suffering is presumed to be real … when the spectacle of … suffering is conveyed to a … sheltered spectator … (Boltanski in Grehan, 2009: 116)

Talking of ‘Shoah drama’, Schumacher argues that a ‘successful’ performance

… is one that disturbs, offers no comfort, advances no solution… (leaves the spectator) perplexed, wanting to know more although convinced that no knowledge can ever cure him of his perplexity. (Schumacher, 2006: 8)

Whilst respecting the particular circumstances of Schumacher’s argument, I can offer no solution to the spectatorial dilemma and perplexity that we should demand of all theatre.

I can offer no answer to Boltanski’s paradox except that we accept and work with such paradox as a necessary concomitant of the fact of the spectator’s agency. Just as we are, to extend Boal’s coining, always ‘spect-actors’ so we are always agents; just as we accept the fiction as knowing spectators so we can accept or reject what the spectacle is showing. Any seduction is (maybe) in my gift to accept or refuse. This knowingness, this messy and complicated autonomy of the spectator is in tension with the same mechanisms of my ‘mirror neurons’ (Iacoboni, 2005) that trigger empathy with the most likely or unlikely subjects. In this, Berkoff follows the unavoidable tendencies of theatre; to raise both the bidden and unbidden responses of the embodied spectator to the embodied spectacle on stage. I suggest that he has a certain intention in this; not only to exorcise his demons, but to exorcise by thrilling our demons through fear and ecstasy. Hence the ‘orgiastic’ and ‘orgasmic’ quality of his style of body and word that plays with the recognisable terrains and psycho-geographies (the terrains of the imagination) of his (and our) ‘Londons’. In this, I can only accept the facts of agency and its resonances of unbidden empathies, of messy spectatorships. In other words, to engage with the seductions of Berkoff’s theatres whilst being wary of these; to enjoy the fear and ecstasy whilst still asking questions of what the spectacle is for, what it is saying to me and other spectators? Of where it leaves me and thus where I leave myself in relation to others.

Towards conclusions (of a kind)
Following the news and obituaries of Pina Bausch’s death, I am aware of her seductions of image, her beautiful starkness, the ecstasy of her rhythms, lines and inter-twinings of moving bodies. Of a seductive stage language that pulled me (willingly) in as a field of carnations is counter-pointed by patrolling Alsatian dogs.

So with Berkoff whose own polyphonic word- and body-scapes remain in states of tension and double-ness that provoke me and seduce me. Berkoff’s real- and psycho-geographies become enchanted lands that are both familiar and unfamiliar; his bodies become contested sites of emotions and ideas and horrors, of ‘agons’ between kinds of loving and kinds of dread. Thus Phelan’s sense of the inherent impossibility of singular beginnings and endings of performance become a ‘Londons’ of plurality of performances. Performances of the real ‘city’ and by implication the wider and deeper ‘citys’:

London is a labyrinth, half of stone and half of flesh. It cannot be conceived in its entirety but can be experienced only as a wilderness of alleys and passages, courts and thoroughfares … (Ackroyd: 2)

Performances of the imagined ‘city’/’citys’ that have their roots in the experienced (both direct and indirect) ‘wilderness’:

Is London, then, just a state of mind … a visionary city? (ibid: 767-8)

Clearly it is neither of these alone, but the dialectical pluralities of both.

For Berkoff, ‘Londons’ of continuing despair and open possibilities of the feared and the ecstatic for characters and spectators alike. A kind of bleak ‘happy ever afters’ …


We will not end our days
In grey born blight … where
were the stars that ordained our birth and
death … we will not end our days like this.


Now you know our names (East: 49-50)

Works Cited

Ackroyd, Peter (2000) London, The Biography, London: Chatto & Windus

Berger, John (1972) Ways of Seeing, London: Penguin.

Berkoff, Steven (1978) East and other plays, London: John Calder.

——-, (1978) ‘Three Theatre Manifestos’, Gambit 32, London: John Calder.

——-, (1982) Greek & Decadence; Playscript 103, London: John Calder

——-, (1994) West; Collected plays 1, London: Faber and Faber

Boal, Augusto (1992) Games for Actors and Non-Actors, trans. Adrian Jackson, London: Routledge.

Boireau, Nicole (1996) ‘Steven Berkoff’s Orgy: The Four Letter Ecstasy’, Contemporary Theatre Review, 5:1, London: Routledge/Informa.

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de Certeau, Michel (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall, Berkeley: University of California Press.

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Grehan, Helena (2009) Performance, Ethics and Spectatorship in a Global Age, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

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Murray, Simon and Keefe, John (2007) Physical Theatres: A Critical Introduction, Abingdon: Routledge.

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Pearson, Mike (1994) “Theatre/archeology’, The Drama Review, 38:4/T144.

Phelan, Peggy and Lane, Jill, eds. (1998) The Ends of Performance, New York: New York UP.

Ridout, Nicholas (2006) Stage Fright, Animals and Other Theatrical Problems, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schumacher, Claude (2006) Staging the Holocaust, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sinclair, Iain (2003) London Orbital, London: Penguin

——-, (2009) Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire: A Confidential Report, London: Hamish Hamilton.

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Williams, Raymond (1973) Drama from Ibsen to Brecht, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Wolfreys, Julian (2004) Writing London: Materiality, Memory, Spectrality, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

To Cite This Article:

John Keefe, ‘Berkoff’s ‘Londons’: staging psycho-geographies of the feared and the ecstatic’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 7 Number 2 (September 2009). Online at Accessed on [date of access]