An hour of rancour with Steven Berkoff
That’s what his new play, The Actor’s Lament, comprises. Surely he can’t be as difficult as his reputation suggests?
Steven Berkoff is not slow to air his grievances. As we leave the Theatre Royal in Margate, the frayed, flaking English seaside town, he breathes out curses loud enough to hear. Is it really so hard to organise a coffee? As we trudge unhappily towards the sea, finding cafes that have closed early for lack of customers (“Does anyone have ambition here?”) and pubs that offer to charge us for instant (“Bloody disgraceful”), Berkoff’s grumblings trail us around like an amassing cloud.
Finally, we settle for a tomato juice outside a pub by the promenade, before a cluster of young scooter riders appear and drown the conversation in spluttering revs and parps. “The smaller they are, the bigger the farts,” he says.
This is merely an attenuated dose of the temper that has helped to make Berkoff a legend. Applied to deserving targets, it became a revolutionary roar, the scourge of bourgeois realism in the 1960s that agitated for a stylised, heightened “total theatre” with which he is synonymous. When it is turned on the BBC, or the acting profession, or even Twitter (“I think, why get into that in the first place? If I jump into a garbage bin, I can’t complain that I’ve got rubbish all over me”), he seems less firebrand than professional crank. One thing is for sure: he has built a career on seizing, and holding, our attention.
It is hardly coincidental that his new show, written in his customary, acidulous verse, performed with two other actors in his customary, outsized manner, is called The Actor’s Lament. It made its debut at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, the same day that Berkoff turned 76, and is an hour of solid complaint involving a writer (Jay Benedict) and two actors, Berkoff and Andrée Bernard, who bemoan the state of contemporary theatre (“the West End now a stately morgue, Chekhov once again exhumed”), deride young directors (“They wear the actor down with cheap stage tricks”) and exalt the burden of live performance (“On stage you have one take. It lasts all night, every night. For years and years . . . Hamlet dies again tomorrow, matinee at three”).
It would be easy to dismiss The Actor’s Lament as another offshoot of complaint culture: grumpy old ham. But Berkoff, you feel, lives for such aggravation.
Chief among his laments is the shifting hierarchy of the theatre. “As the driving force and the ultimate fuel of the theatre – the coal you put in the fireplace – actors are the ones who are burning up the stage. And it’s not just burning up the stage. It’s the repetition to recreate Othello or Macbeth or whatever, every night, and the intensity of that kind of work, which actually is very tough on the actor. But they accept it with good grace, even if they don’t feel like it, if they’re feeling ill, tired, sick, depressed, mad – and that is their territory, so to speak. But in recent years that territory seems to have gradually shifted to the importance of the director. The director is the thinker, the analyst, the creator, the shaper of the thing; he chooses the theme, type, and the actor then becomes more of a puppet for him. This is borne out by the amount of publicity and attention they get. That’s what the play is about.”