by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Stage
Steven Berkoff

The Performance-Driven Steven Berkoff

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 7 December 1993


'I never wanted to be that kind of spineless, vapid, passive actor whose only justification for existence is when somebody phones them, and they think: Ooo! I've come to life!' said Steven Berkoff, underlining his point with an arrestingly convincing impression of some inane thespian unexpectedly finding himself in contact with an electric cow prod, and causing the salt-beef sandwich-eater on the next door table at Rabins Nosh Bar, a venerable theaterland hang-out just off Piccadilly Circus, to pause, startled, mid-munch.

Having recently completed making 'Decadence' his first feature film, Berkoff was limbering up for a solo stage show 'One Man' (which is on at the Garrick Theatre until the end of December).

A tall, robust, muscular man with strong handsome features, cropped hair and penetrating blue eyes, Berkoff was born in Stepney to Russian and Romanian Jewish parents shortly before the second world war. Had he come into the East End's rough-and-tumble proletarian environment a decade or two earlier it is easy to imagine that he might have become a pugilist.

Afte drama school and touring the country for four or five years with a traditional repertory company, Berkoff realized that being a conventional actor was not going to be enough for him. He took himself off to Paris, to study mime with Jaques Le Coq - an artist, unlike Marcel Marceau, 'very much more interested in melding and moulding together theater and mime, rather than pure mime.'

On his return he founded the London Theatre Group - launching it with a series of highly original, athletic and exhilarating adaptations, including Franz Kafka's 'The Trial' and 'Metamorphosis', Edgar Allen Poe's 'The Fall of the House of Usher', and Aeschylus's 'Agamemnon' - all performed on a virtually bare stage with a minimum of props, but creating, through mime and ensemble acting, vividly sketched, constantly changing scenes and settings.

By the mid-seventies Berkoff was composing his own dramas, initiating his career as a playwright with 'East', 'a testament to youth and energy', a raw, humorous, erotically unbuttoned, often scatalogical, riot of a play, conjuring up the East End of his upbringing, written in a rhyming slang-peppered, semi-Shakesperean, semi-Berkoffian heightened vernacular that aspires to heady flights of lyricism and as readily plunges into bawdy, surreal depths of doggerel.

There followed 'West', a no less exuberant and comic saga of petty metropolitan gang warfare, and 'Greek', Sophocles's Oedipus story transposed to the violent, decaying, boredom-plagued 'unimaginable wastelands of Tufnell Park' in present-day north-east London.

Berkoff's extravagant, baroque lingusitic acrobatics and complex, relentlessly shifting performance style scaled new pinnacles and plumbed new abysses in 'Decadence', first staged a dozen years ago at the New End Theater, Hampstead (formerly a hospital morgue).

'It's a play,' said Berkoff, 'that depicts the most extreme aspects of human behaviour, the aspects dedicated to indulgence - the Seven Deadly Sins. My idea from the beginning was to write a play of luxurious language - absolutely to swim in a sea of wonderful verbiage - full of lovely images, metaphors, brilliant alliterations... And also to be satiric, cynical, to push things to the limit, not necessarily to shock, but out of the sheer pleasure of being outrageous, to the point where there comes a little explosion, like a ''Ping!'' - and you have a piece of... Art.'

Despite 'Decadence''s public and critical acclaim, when Berkoff floated the idea of turning it into a feature film (several of his earlier productions had been televised) he met a dismal response from British producers.

'Each one,' Berkoff said, 'was more banal than the last. They'd say: ''This is a good piece, it would be extraordinary on film, but something like this has never been done before...'' One troglodytic moron said: 'Oh, but it comes from the theater, doesn't it?'' - as if it came from the bowels of the Nazi Party - 'We want things made for the cinema'' - as though some of the greatest films ever made didn't come from the theater.'

'Here in England they are still obsessed with the idea that film is not an art form. They feel that film is an extension of journalism - a little film about the IRA, with a little romantic interest, is perfect for them, because it deals with a 'real issue', a real, plodding issue.'

Turning to Europe, Berkoff received a more sympathetic response. 'In Europe, at least, film is seen as an artwork - the work of an auteur. It is still seen as a possible means of communicating strange, devious, bizarre, daring ideas. Europeans have never seen films as the Americans so often do - as a kind of junk food to satisfy the immediate craving of cheap, debilitated taste-buds.'

Berkoff's outspokenly low opinion of most contemporary American cinema has not dampened Hollywood directors' eagerness to employ him as an actor - the fruits of which he has for many years used to support his self-punishing and perfectionist experiments on the stage - or, as he puts it, 'my theater habit'. Stanley Kubrick used him in 'Clockwork Orange' and 'Barry Lyndon'. Since then he has appeared - almost invariably as an archetypal villain - in numerous commercial productions from 'Beverley Hills Cop' to 'Rambo' and the James Bond movie 'Octopussy'. In 'Absolute Beginners' he played an Oswald Mosley-style fascist rabble-rouser - writing his own speech in rhyming couplets. While doing 'Rambo II' he used his time off to write a new play 'Acapulco'.

His worst film experience so far, he said, was working on ''Prisoner of Rio'', based on the life of Ronnie Biggs, the fugitive English Great Train Robber. 'It was the worst possible experience... It was so painful that in order to deal with my feelings of self-loathing and disgust I wrote a book about it called ''Prisoner in Rio'' - which became, in the end, one of the most interesting things I've written.'

After a German backer was found for 'Decadence' (filming was done in Germany and Luxembourg), Berkoff, who both directs and stars in the film was in need of a female lead.

'I sent the screenplay to Joan Collins,' he said. 'I thought she had the requisite attractiveness, bizarre kind of lifestyle, elegance. She was, in fact, the Helen of the play: extremely rich, demanding, sexual - the kind of person to whom nothing must be denied. And that's what Joan's like. So I went round to her house, I read a bit for her - she giggled and agreed to take it on.'

Berkoff's febrile, high-voltage but exactly measured stage productions normally demand weeks of rehearsal and preparation to create their pyrotechnic effects. Did this prove an obstacle for an actress like Joan Collins not normally associated with avant-garde theater?

'I'd seen this girl, Denise Evans, playing Helen in a small experimental theater - she was absolutely brilliant. So I thought it would be a good idea if she could coach Joan to catch up with the rest of us who'd done the play before. At first I was a bit apprehensive when I said to Joan: ''I have a coach for you''. I thought she might say: 'I don't need a coach. I've been acting for thirty years. What are you talking about?' Instead she said: ''Oh, that's wonderful! After all, it is in verse...'' - something I'd quite forgotten as I was so used to playing it. So with Denise's help Joan was able to work herself into it - and she gives a colossal performance.'

I asked Berkoff if directing for film had proved very different from directing for the stage. 'I was a bit nervous the first day, but after that I got easily into it. I used a stand-in to set up the scenes and then took over myself for the shoot. Actually, I found it a very liberating experience to work on a scene, get it right and then move on to the next one - unlike the theater where you have to do it night after night, and don't always feel like it.'

With the editing now almost complete and the premier set for the end of January in London, was Berkoff satisfied with the result? 'The shooting is, I think, quite modern, quite inventive. I tried to see it with a painter's eye, so that it would be very beautiful to look at, with not too much cutting back and forth for reaction shots. I don't think the film is quite as revolutionary as it should be. But in terms of acting it is extremely handsome - a very performance-driven film. So, I'll be very, very curious to see how it works out'.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023