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.”
There is more than a little irony here. As a performer on stage or screen, Berkoff has never been eclipsed by anyone. And, as a writer and director from early in his career, he receives an unusual control and prominence – not to mention publicity – in his work. He may be best recognised as an actor, but from his characteristic style, his famous image, his villainous movie roles and his well-sustained legend, it is closer to the truth to consider Berkoff as a brand.
“I was brought up, fortunately, in a period when the actor was the dominant force,” he says. The actor’s rightful role, he believes, “is to pass the baton on to the next generation of actors by teaching, by directing, by even giving classes at the major theatres. The natural rite of passage is to become the father figure, which is the director. If he is not then progressing to taking over the theatre, he does not pass on the most amazing collection of knowledge over sometimes thousands of performances. All these great roles are directed by neophytes, very often from university. They’ve done their training, their study, their degrees, they come in knowing nothing about what makes an actor tick, what makes him breathe onstage, and so, they compensate [with design and high concept] to cover a loss.”
Berkoff has a complicated and uneasy relationship with the establishment. On the one hand, he speaks reverentially about the old guard: Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and Alec Guinness are frequently invoked. Several times he tells me, “Nothing can compare to the theatre I saw 50 years ago”. On the other hand, it was the staid institutionalism of 50 years ago that made his early work – teeth-gnashing and rococo visions of his Jewish East End London such as East; West; and Kvetch – so essential. These days he comes across as both proud and resentful of his outsider status, like a lifelong rebel who half-expected to howl his way into a sinecure.
“They have absolutely kept me outside and continue to do so,” he says of institutions such as the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, “and I’m very happy, because it forces me to really try and struggle. I knock on doors. Sometimes I knock on doors like a beggar collecting pennies for Guy Fawkes. ‘Can we come in for a few weeks? No? Can we come in for a week?’ ”
Struggling takes its toll, however; he is proud, for instance, of his 2011 version of Oedipus, but still can’t find a theatre to restage it.
“If there’s anything that the establishment can’t bear, it’s someone who stands out,” he says. “You could say the same thing about any radical person, starting from Jesus Christ.” That’s an interesting figure to identify with, but Christ, to my knowledge, never threatened to kill a theatre critic, as Berkoff did following Nicholas de Jongh’s 1979 review of his Hamlet.
The Actor’s Lament gives a precis to critic-kind that is only slightly warmer: “a squalid mass of bilious scum, tone-deaf, half-blind, rejected hacks, meddling, grubby, half-baked Oxbridge dropouts”, a remark that has drawn quivering contentment from many people, most of them critics. “In the past when faced with a negative review, which has gone beyond negative to spiteful, I’ve defended my plays, sometimes aggressively, like they were my children; with my heart, my soul. And they say, ‘Oh he’s difficult. He’s a shouter. He’s eccentric. He’s a weirdo. All these silly stories’.”
He does not give the aura of someone especially easy to work with, however. Due to play a part in a revival of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party in LA, Berkoff stormed out of the production, by his own account, when he fell out with the director. And he recalls his legendary Gate production of Salome, which was revived a couple of times without his involvement, with some residual disgruntlement. “It’s one of my favourite plays, so I came and did it, and it was one of the biggest successes they ever had. They never offered me another job.”
In his autobiography, Free Association, Berkoff announced his retirement. “It’s going to be an uphill battle this last decade,” he predicted, “but since it will definitely be my last, I suppose I can take it. I don’t want to be acting past 60 or fighting for a place or getting angry when I should be calm and serene, nor feel sick when I take too much notice of reviews.” He wrote those words in 1991. Now 77, his deadline seems to be endlessly deferred.
“Yeah, unfortunately,” he says. “God, yeah. I’m still doing it and I’m cracking up. I thought when I reached 60, 65, I’d rather direct, but I didn’t have opportunities. I still like doing my one-man show, Shakespeare’s Villains. I’m still operating at full blast. I thought, I’ll wait till I’m 68, 69. Then 70 came and I’m still working away. I want to do something that really squeezes my nuts like the old way. Something colossal. So I wrote Actor’s Lament.”
Not only did he write it, he has lived it. Showing me around his dressing room, before that night’s performance, Berkoff provided some characteristic commentary. “It’s a dump. It’s filthy. It’s quite appalling.” That may sound sour, but to be in his company is to feel vitality in his rancour. Somehow, you suspect there’s still nowhere else he would rather be.
The Actor’s Lament is at the Gaiety Theatre September 1-6