AN ACTOR WITH THE FEAR FACTOR:
When Steven Berkoff arrives at his office in London’s Docklands, he is wearing jogging pants and trainers. I deliberately get out of my chair and walk over to greet him as he enters the room, not to have him stand over me, gaining the upper hand before the interview has even begun.
Why this concern to establish a level playing field? Quite simply, I am scared of the man. My sense of foreboding is generated not so much by his fame or his talent as by his reputation. Berkoff is known to be ferocious in his contempt for journalists who ask stupid questions, and I have no intention of becoming the latest victim of his intellectual impatience.
I need not have worried. however. As he rolls himself a cigarette and relaxes, he is emphatic and honest on most subjects, but in particular that of Requiem for Ground Zero – the September 11 performance poem which premiered at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe and returns to Scotland this week. Requiem was, he says, “my personal contribution to the grief and woe of America, as opposed to a piece of self-aggrandisement.” Consequently, he was outraged when the US authorities deported him last year due to a discrepancy in his visa. “‘You overstayed your visa by 24 hours in 1997.’ That’s the thanks I got.”
If he is scathing about the US government, he is no more reticent when it comes to what he castigates as the London theatre “Establishment”.
Despite his many theatrical accomplishments, such as his acclaimed debut, East, in 1975, and highly successful runs of Salome and The Trial at the National Theatre in 1989 and 1990, Berkoff feels he has never been afforded proper recognition by “the guys in charge”.
There is, he contends, “a public that wants something that is quite different, quite sensational, quite dynamic, and they’re not being fed. They’re paying their tax pounds towards theatre subsidies and, therefore, they’re being cheated. And if they’re being cheated, the Establishment is guilty of fraud.”
For Berkoff, London theatre programmers constitute “an uneducated Establishment. It’s just concerned with words and with how we show our society, rather than how we interpret it, how we can shape society by ways of looking at it satirically or using methods that challenge it and provoke it.”
Although his vision of the ideal role for theatre sounds rather Brechtian, there is a quite different aesthetic at work in Berkoff’s theatre. His early training with the great French teacher Jacques Lecoq combined with his working -class, east London Jewish upbringing to give him a profound sense of the role of both movement and the ensemble in live drama. He roots much of the robustness and muscularity of his theatre in his youth.
“The East End was a place of tumult, fervour and crowds. It was an area of dynamism,” he recalls. “When I first went to see a play, I thought it was amateur, I didn’t realise it was professional. It didn’t relate to me because my senses were already attuned to a far more demanding kind of stimulus.
“When I studied movement in Paris with Jacques Lecoq, the ensemble cast was an incredible, malleable form, it was like a small army, which you could do amazing things with. That’s the sort of theatre I still believe in.”
Curiously enough, this notion of the “small army” on stage could even be applied to the solo works which he is also bringing to Edinburgh. In Shakespeare’s Villains he tackle five of the Bard’s most evil characters. In Requiem, he plays a vast array of parts, real and imagined, and he plays the narrator in his adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, the eponymous actor of his own mini-play about an out of work thespian, and, in Dog, the almost interchangeable characters of a xenophobic football thug and his pet pitbull terrier.
The confidence and flamboyance of these solo works seems well fitted to the dynamic cut and thrust of theatre on the Fringe. Berkoff is fulsome in his praise for what he calls the “people’s theatre” that takes over the Scottish capital every August. “They don’t give a damn who you are, or what university you went to,” he says. “Can you put bums on seats? Can you afford the deposit? Then you’re on. I like that. That, to me, is very democratic.
It’s the slaves’ rebellion. You go out there, and there’s a group of people, and they’re all fighters. Crassus and his millionaire compatriots stay stuck in London. They don’t want to go up there. It’s the slaves, it’s Spartacus.”
As infectious as his enthusiasm is, I have a niggling doubt about Berkoff. Perhaps it’s the collection of Peter Howson paintings on the wall (which the actor considers reflective of “the energy and power of the common man”), or maybe it’s the less-than-glowing reports from female colleagues who have met him, but I can’t help seeing something of an English Norman Mailer in him.
When I broach the subject of his often uneasy relationship with the press, he volunteers the following: “Sometimes you get a few bitches, women, often carrying, even unbeknown to them, some sort of sexual baggage, where they use the function of their job as a mandate to claw you a bit. That really annoys me.”
There is a whiff of sulphur in this comment, but then Berkoff has never accommodated the expectations of, or moved to please, the liberal arts crowd. The history of the arts, from Robert Burns to Earnest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso, is littered with difficult figures who tend to be tidily ascribed the label of ‘flawed genius’. Deserved or not, I rather suspect Berkoff would be happy to join their company.
This interview was originally published in Scotland on Sunday on 27 July 2003
© Mark Brown