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Incendiary Charm

"The English theatre is so tame and moribund, if you meow you're called a madman!" Thus asserts the 64-year-old, British-born actor-writer-director Steven Berkoff, who insists his public image of cultural provocateur is overblown. "In England, a 20-watt bulb is controversial."

Still, an incendiary persona has a certain charm, no doubt, and one Berkoff seems to enjoy playing. Or so he suggests with virtually every quip rendered, at least in our phone conversation, in a matter of fact, slightly amused tone of voice.

Consider these Berkoffian observations: "London should be the center of great Shakespeare, but it's not. In England, Shakespeare is over-sold, over-regarded, and ineptly performed. Assembly-line Shakespeare!"

Many British actors, he continues, are "lazy" and the audiences "phlegmatic" (not that he fully blames them). Theatre is too closely allied to cinema instead of being, well, truly theatrical: stylized, symbolic, and physical. Ideally, "The power of acting is wedded to movement."

One thing is for certain: No one can accuse Berkoff of being, uh, static, in his delightful one-man show, "Shakespeare's Villains: A Master Class in Evil," which opened Off-Broadway at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre on Jan. 10.

Bounding about the stage—and bounding is the operative word—Berkoff inhabits with broad and jolly abandon one Shakespearean devil after another while offering comic asides on just about everything. Between snippets of Iago, Richard III, or Macbeth, Berkoff skewers a range of targets—from mean-spirited critics to absurdly pretentious Shakespearean acting-teacher-gurus to inaudible actors flummoxed in the face of props that go bump in the night.

He is a hell of a mimic (his Al Pacino is peerless) and, in his guise as "standup guide to Bardolotry," as he dubs himself, Berkoff is downright charismatic, creating a show that celebrates joyous dementia.

Yet, there are very real ideas at play here—about British acting, audience expectation, and most central, the nature of Shakespearean villains, who despite their differences—be they mediocre, genius, or wannabe villains—are linked by "the lack of love in their lives. Maybe it's a simplistic interpretation," Berkoff admits, "and I'm sure there are other cultural and political interpretations. But these are the insights of an actor-player."

Berkoff's thesis goes something like this: Iago, a mediocre villain, is deprived of Othello's love, which he desperately covets. Richard III, a genius villain, enjoys no love in his life either, thanks to his physical deformity. Macbeth is a wannabe villain whose careerist, sexless wife spurs him on to villainy. Sexuality and fertility, as well as the lack thereof, in the lives of Shakespeare's characters are either obliquely identified with (or lead to) bloodletting violence.

With tongue just slightly planted in cheek, Berkoff points to Oberon in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" as yet another example of an evildoer. "Oberon is the first drug pusher." And nobody much loves him either.

Berkoff acknowledges that his spins on these rascals—specifically, his presentation of them in this show—are shaped by his comic sensibility and the presence of his onstage alter ego, the rogue narrator who ties it altogether. Berkoff notes the element of deliberate exaggeration in some of his characterizations, but not all.

Most striking, and controversial, is his Shylock, a sleazy, slithering, Orthodox Jew who sports the ritual ear locks, speaks with a slight Yiddish inflection, and physically embodies in gait, gesture, and posture, every anti-Semitic stereotype of the old religious Jew.

Berkoff, Jewish himself, is not unaware of the mined territory he is treading. But, he maintains, Shylock must be placed in the context in which he was written, not viewed through a post-Holocaust prism.

"Shakespeare did not know Jews. There were no Jews in England at that time. The Jew, like any villain, was simply a despised outsider, a mythic clown-devil. And pre-Holocaust Jews were entertained by him." In most modern productions of "The Merchant of Venice," Shylock has become politically correct and falsified, says Berkoff, who (in all fairness) plays him as an enraged snake, albeit poignant and complex.

Ever to the Left

Berkoff is not afraid of stepping on toes. His newest play, "Messiah: Scenes From a Crucifixion," presents a manipulative Jesus who deliberately orchestrates his own demise in order to fulfill an Old Testament prophecy. The Old Vic was going to mount the work, but at the last minute backed out, says Berkoff, without elaborating further.

Berkoff, who can speak knowledgeably about cultural politics and literature—he admires American fiction in general and the work of Hubert Selby, Jr. and Bernard Malamud in particular—is a Renaissance man of the theatre. In addition to appearing in all media (frequently cast as the bald heavy), he has served as director and adapter of various texts, his most notable being Kafka's "Metamorphosis," which played on Broadway in 1989, starring Mikhail Baryshnikov.

As noted, Berkoff is a playwright ("East," "Kvetch," and "Brighton Beach Scumbags"). His literary vision is shaped by left-leaning politics, coupled with a sharp sense of social and linguistic parody. Berkoff's fictional worlds are oftentimes dark, bleak, and angry.

"My playwriting does not come out of an ideology. It's functional, to give me and my actor-friends the chance to do the kind of theatre we want. Every actor should write!"

Berkoff is also a short story writer, travel writer, and poet. He has published his autobiography, "Free Association" (Faber & Faber), and his latest book, "Graft: Tales of an Actor," was published (by Oberon) in 1998.

Pop-cult is not beneath his dignity either. On the contrary, it has a certain allure for him. He recently directed a feature film he wrote, "Decadence," starring him and Joan Collins (no less). It has not been released in the U.S.

What makes Berkoff's accomplishments especially impressive is that he has had little formal education; indeed, he is self-taught. He grew up in Stepney, London, a working class community, and his father was a tailor who (mercifully, from Berkoff's point of view) did not expect his son to follow in his footsteps. From the outset, Berkoff was interested in the arts, but his early years were rudderless.

"I left school when I was 15 with no trade and no skills. I drifted around the world until I was 21, when I enrolled in drama school [Webber Douglas] in London. I can't say the training was all that good, but it certainly opened the world of theatre to me."

Berkoff studied mime with clown-master Jacques Lecoq, who gave Berkoff "the tools and ammunition" to create the kind of symbolic—at times expressionistic—theatre that most spoke to him.

Not unexpectedly, acting jobs were in short supply for the newcomer. But Berkoff was not one to sit around and mope. In 1968, he created his own company, titled the London Theatre Group. Among their early productions: Berkoff's adaptations of Kafka's short stories, "Metamorphosis" and "In The Penal Colony."

"My goal was to challenge myself, do the most monstrous projects I could come up with. That's always been my credo. We did not use sets or props. It was a very physical theatre. Our bodies told the stories. We did what Jacques Lecoq called 'figuration mime.' "

Berkoff is identified with Great Britain's avant-garde scene. He is a regular participant at the Edinburgh Festival, and insists (with regret) that Britain's avant-garde is largely unknown and on the fringe. "In New York, experimental theatre can become mainstream and even get to Broadway, like Julie Taymor's 'Lion King.' In England, that just doesn't happen. Mainstream work in London is safe, unambitious, and risk free."

In Search of Freedom

And if nothing else, Berkoff is big on risk taking as aesthetic. He says, for example, that he suffers panic every night before he goes on and is never certain that he'll have the courage to encounter those blank faces sitting out there in the dark. But that's almost enough of a reason to do it, he suggests. Besides, his need to "get out there and act" overrides his fears.

He created "Villains"—indeed, all of his plays—because he refuses to be a "passive recipient," waiting at the phone for the next audition. Equally important, "The one-man show gives you freedom to perform and reveal what you can do in ways that other genres may not."

Clearly, "Villains" is not the first one-man Shakespearean piece. But it is different from the others that are essentially "recitations," he says, citing "John Gielgud's and Ian McKellen's" one-man shows as wonderful examples of the "recitation" genre. Berkoff's showman emcee (the guide) is what gives his piece edge and distinguishes it from the others, he says. "Mine is more of an interpretation and entertainment."

And perhaps nowhere is he more entertaining than when he is mocking himself. At the curtain call, he plays the gracious and grateful actor, acknowledging his adoring fans. Beaming fatuously and awash in artifice, he clasps his hands together, pressing them to his heart and then extending his arms up towards the theatregoers in the back. The self-satirizing gesture—pitching a bloated valentine to all—undercuts and underscores the genuine sentiment.

PQ. "Every actor should write!"

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