20 Questions With...Steven Berkoff
Date: 6 August 2001
Actor, director & playwright Steven Berkoff, with two shows at Edinburgh 2001, explains what he'd do if he led the National & how the Erotic Review inspired his new project.
Steven Berkoff's early career was spent in repertory theatre before he founded the London Theatre group in 1968. His many plays include East, West, Decadence, Greek, Kvetch and Sink the Belgrano, not to mention his numerous one-man shows which have toured extensively.
In 1997, Berkoff was honoured with a Total Theatre Lifetime Achievement Award at the Edinburgh Festival. Back at the Festival this year, Berkoff is represented with two major productions: The Secret Love Life of Ophelia, a verse drama which imagines the courtship between Hamlet and Ophelia through a passionate exchange of letters; and Dahling You Were Marvellous, a stage adaptation of his never before performed 1980s TV comedy.
On screen, Berkoff has acted in such films as A Clockwork Orange, McVicar, Octopussy and Legionnaire. His publishing credits include Gross Intrusion, I Am Hamlet and Meditations on Metamorphosis.
Date & place of birth
Born in Stepney, East London in 1937.
Now lives in...
I still live around the East End of London.
I went to the Jacques le Coq school in Paris. There was somewhere in London too, but it's not really worth naming.
First big break
When I did Zoo Story at Stratford East in 1965 it was the first time I received nationwide attention and good reviews.
What do you consider to be your career highlights?
I can't really single particular ones out, but I was proud to direct my first movie, Decadence, in which I also acted as well as having written it.
Favourite production that you've worked on
There isn't one individual production I'd pick out. But when I was working as an actor at Liverpool Playhouse, I was taken under the wing of a great man and director called David Scace. He was a very fatherly figure, always encouraging and took a lot of care with me. This was at a time when repertory theatre had a distinguished tradition of actors and directors, and places like the Liverpool Playhouse were considered a real honour to work in.
I have a strong recollection of Christopher Plummer as a very dynamic actor when I had a small part in the same Hamlet production as him.
What role would you most like to play still?
Othello, as it's been lost under the umbrella of political correctness, and yet art should transcend barriers for all races.
How have the various directors from the cinema world you've worked with influenced your own theatre directing?
I wouldn't say they have, although I like David Lynch's use of figures, stillness and crazy hair. My theatre piece Greek incorporated some elements that may be comparable to that style.
Yours was among the names put forward by Whatsonstage.com readers in our recent National Theatre directorship Big Debate. What changes would you personally implement at the National given the chance?
It carries a heavy responsibility with it, but in essence I've already done the same thing. I've worked as an administrator, director and actor and performed my works around the world for 25 years in ten different countries, so the NT job wouldn't really entail anything new. The money available, however, would obviously be a different factor as would the delegating of work. I would change the dynamic of the acting structure to have a core of actors, because with an ensemble you get more chance to develop and train together and not keep chopping and changing with each production.
In your opinion what's the best thing currently on stage?
Two things that impressed in recent times were Blasted at the Royal Court and De La Guarda at the Roundhouse.
What advice would you give to the government to secure the future of British theatre?
They should have a more discriminatory board as they're generally too loosely advised. Money is rather wantonly given to buildings as opposed to the people who are running them, when there are genuine artists in need of it.
What in particular appeals to you about the Edinburgh Festival and how do you assess its continued importance?
It's a place where you can genuinely find yourself among fellow players, and it's a performance-based arena which is powered by actors and not just directors. In London, things are more based around directors who manipulate the artistic energy and are then given too much reverence. In Edinburgh, the role of the directors' conceptual theatre is diminished, and you see very little that is director-based. The actors tend to own the shows which makes it much more actor-based. This all makes for a real breath of fresh air when the real work is taking place on stage and not behind the scenes.
How do you view the current state of play in the West End?
It always seems to be a bit shaky and it's very difficult to try and influence producers to be a bit braver. Yet when they play safe, as they generally do, they often get their fingers burnt. It might help if such huge rents weren't charged for so many productions.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) who would it be & why?
I'm quite happy as me, but I'm interested in the 19th-century actor Edmund Keane who had a somewhat notorious reputation yet had a spellbinding effect on the public. I think that would have been a fascinating time to live in.
The Last of the Just by Andre Schwarz-Bart, which is both a chronicle of persecution and a great work of Jewish mysticism.
In Hamlet, the reader is left uncertain about the nature of Hamlet's true feelings for Ophelia. How far was The Secret Love Life of Ophelia an attempt to resolve that uncertainty in your own mind?
I was using the play more as a means of expressing how it feels to be in love. The experience when a person is made almost transcendental and illuminated by the act of love; the language, the concepts, the feelings of pain and passion. Shakespeare's love between Hamlet and Ophelia was corrupted by the elements around it, by the establishment figures who represent convention. Today's establishment with all its elements of cynicism, jealousy, bitterness and repression continues to do much the same.
How did the idea of presenting this drama first occur to you?
Whilst I was in Morocco last year on a television shoot, a young man from the Erotic Review approached me with the idea of contributing parodies of famous writers. I experimented with a few themes and the idea of using letters to express the dark side of love sowed the seed for the play.
To what degree was the notion of using letters between Hamlet and Ophelia presented by Hamlet's difficulty in vocally expressing his private emotions?
I agree that Shakespeare's Hamlet may have had that difficulty, but my story is different in that these letters become a bridge for their passion. The code of letter writing is the central theme even though restriction and repression do surface later.
What are your future plans?
We're hoping to restage The Messiah later this year with a British tour. We were promised a theatre in London but they betrayed us. Now we're hoping to play Oxford in the autumn, plus other venues, and head to London around December. I'd also like to establish a sort of Berkoff Theatre to provide a space to run my other works such as Kvetch on a regular basis.
- Steven Berkoff was speaking to Gareth Thompson
The Secret Love Life of Ophelia begins at the Edinburgh Assembly Rooms on 21 August 2001. Dahling You Were Marvellous opens at the C Belle Angele from 6 August.