Steven Berkoff is one of the most influential figures in the world of theatre and film, both as an actor and as a pioneering writer and director, spearheading the conception of ‘total theatre’- a method and style that, whilst avant-garde and shocking twenty years ago, is now widely mimicked in both professional and amateur theatre.
Berkoff’s reputation precedes him, much of it painting him in the same intimidating, volatile light of one of the famous villains he has played
throughout his career; Rambo’s Colonel Padovsky, Bond’s General Orlov, Victor Maitland in Beverly Hills Cop. His association with other legends such as Stanley Kubrick only seals his status as a maverick and icon of the dramatic world, whilst his writing-both creative and auto-biographical- has led to him having a eager following of young writers and actors who regard him with both fear and great admiration.
It was in this context that Berkoff attended PERFORM 2013- the convention of theatre that returned to London’s Olympia for its third year. PERFORM brings together theatre professionals and young students- playwrights, actors and
theatre lovers- to provide career advice and talks. Berkoff attended the event both to promote his upcoming play, An Actor’s Lament, his first verse-play in over twenty years, and to give a talk about his career, a talk that was incredibly well-received by the audience who all sat entranced by Berkoff. His way of speaking is in itself transfixing, filled with grandeur and performance- even in the context of a cold and bleak tent, with Berkoff dressed in a grey hoodie. His genius was clear as he recounted his training with Jacques Lecoq, performing mime acts each a balance of comedy and great insight into the human condition. Afterwards, as PERFORMANCE REVIEWED sat down with the great man himself, he provided even greater insight into the mercurial nature of his craft.
W: Hello Mr Berkoff. You’re here at Perform as a successful actor and are recognised as a groundbreaking force within theatre. Yet at the same time you’re here promoting your new book ‘The Actor’s Lament’ which portrays the hardship of the craft. In your talk you described acting as lonely craft with a real need for allies. Do you feel now in your career you’ve reached a stage where you feel you have your allies and if it is no longer as lonely as it once was?
S: I think it gets lonelier. Because as you start to establish yourself, you start to take your own particular road. And you find your road is a different territory and that the other people are digging out the old pits you find that you become isolated. In the beginning you are linked to these people, you work with them, you act with them, you get on with them. As you find there are more things in heaven and earth than as dreamt in your philosophy, you find that they have neglected what is there. They haven’t even begun to discover the potential of the theatre. Consequently you have to go off and do it yourself. The more you do that, what it tends to do is to create a situation where you are isolated from them. Yet you still need each other. Many of these people are very defensive. They have their theatres and they have their groups and they have their style- if you can call it that- then what they tend to do is when they have theatres and when they have means of which to show, you find yourself more and more outside. More and more if you like, not only an outsider, but generally regarded as a person who’s doing their own thing. They have nothing to do with you. You are, in a way, in another stratosphere. You are in space and they are still digging away at the old pits.
W: Your work is very visceral. Did you find that when people saw it they instantly accepted it or did you find you had to convince people?
S: Audiences immediately because we went to a different kind of form whereby most theatre draws you in the beginning, so you hear the story and then you get a little bit hooked. My philosophy was that it should attack the audience within the first ten seconds. It should be blindingly obvious that is a visceral, dynamic experience. So I’m in a different area- the audiences always accepted it. The critics did at first, then they become a bit cynical and they have their own particular values. That’s what keeps them going- they are enshrined in the old. That’s not bad, they love the old. They love their Pinter, Stoppard. But by this time, I’ve left them so far that I have not even a connection. We might be in a different business even.
G: You talked just now about the directors who use catchy tunes, ear worms and other devices to artificially entice their audience. Do you think that the British audiences are changing? Will we continue to have those who go for the sake of having to see ‘Wicked’, or ‘Phantom of the Opera’?
S: I’m afraid so, because not being challenged. What you’re doing, you’re cultivating a very dumb audience with an amazingly low threshold. They merely want to have somewhere to go to build up enough appetite for their supper afterwards. They can’t just go out for dinner- they have to see a play. Because once they’ve seen a play, they have something to discuss at dinner. But the threshold of drama at the moment is appalling.
G: Do you think British theatre has a future ahead of it? Do you think there might be a Renaissance?
S: I think so, yes. People are getting fed up of the same people, the same club, seeing the same directors. It’s up to the young people to create their own groups. To start again.
W: Well on that note, at Perform there are so many young actors and writers. Do you feel that in your career you are now moving towards a more mentoring role?
S: Yeah, a lot. But I’m still acting. I decided to some more acting. That’s why I did this play I talked about, called The Actor’s Lament. I was acting a few weeks ago and it was fantastic to be acting again. I think I’ll do more mentoring next year.
G: Turning to characters – in your talk that you described Hamlet as boring.
S: Not boring – it’s that there are so many actors around him, like Horatio. He’s like a feed.
G: When you read a script, do you instantly get a feel about the character and do you try to alter that when you play him?
S: Yes, I usually do. I usually have a strong feel but more than anything I look to see how it can be staged. I see my character and my play and the first thing I think of is ‘how does it come alive on stage?” That’s so important. How to make it quintessentially hypnotic.
G: Have there ever been any characters where you’ve not got anything, you’ve felt challenged by their aims?
S: Well, maybe a little bit. I mostly play parts I feel a great sympathy for. The one I’m doing now I feel completely inside. Sometimes I play Coriolanus; about 10 years ago I got into it, and a lot of it I feel very uncomfortable with, because he went on whining and whining. But some you don’t, unless you find a hook, it can be very difficult. But usually, I find a hook.
G: Do you think the theatre has advantages over film and television, in terms of the audience?
S: Well, the theatre lasts a lot longer. You can have a film, it comes out, wins an Academy Award, everyone talks about it for about 10 minutes, but then onto the next one. But pieces of theatre that are exciting, will last year after years after year and become part of the nation’s identity. And also you develop the piece, and it’s refracted through many different actors and interpreters. So the thing is continually enlivened, where with film you see it again and again and then it becomes part of history. Theatre has a more dynamic effect on society. Even if only a small percentage of society see it, that percentage of society that do have more power, influence, culture and effect than the billions that go along and see Rocky I and II (comically imitates Sylvester Stallone).
W: If you could express your relationship and belief in theatre in one sentence, what would it be?
S: For me, theatre is the way of discovering the truest, most innermost part of myself. That’s what it is.
By Will Ballantyne-Reid and Gregory Wilkinson