In 1990, George Dillon interviewed Steven Berkoff for Brighton’s what’s on magazine, The Punter.
Rambo, Beverley Hills Cop, Octopussy; Steven Berkoff has become a household name by playing un-American villains for Hollywood. Telly-watchers will have thrilled to his revivification of Hitler in War and Remembrance.
However, as an actor/writer/director for the stage, Berkoff has been making waves for 20 years, earning a reputation as the ‘infant terrible’ of British theatre particularly for his soul-searching original play East, his scourging portrayal of Hamlet and his brilliant adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis (now an A-level set text).
In the last two years Brighton has seen productions of Berkoff’s Lunch, East, From My Point of View, Sink the Belgrano!, Decadence and Greek. Punters may also remember George Dillon’s performances in the last two plays at the Pavilion Theatre in 1985.
During a break from supporting him in Salome at the National Theatre, George went to Steven’s Kemptown flat to interview him exclusively for The Punter. Far from being the East End lout made good, this interview reveals an artist who cares passionately about his work and its contribution to society, perhaps the last champion of a dying tradition of great British acting.
What made you become an actor rather than a writer, given your interest in both?
I knew that technically the discipline of acting was more available, more accessible than writing. With a bit of luck and a bit of courage you can go into an evening institute and get a little role and start actual acting. You also enjoy the experience of the act of creation linked up with your fellow man, whereas with writing you do need skill and experience and knowledge and vocabulary and… far more complex… you need to understand the mechanics of syntax, phrasing, dialogue. You need to know the complexities of language and that takes many years in order to find the ideas, to hone them out of yourself. So I thought I’d start off as an actor and understand what makes the construction and mechanics of a play, in the same way as if you wanted to be an engineer you might actually start learning how to drive a train and study it and see its function and its mechanics, its stresses… observe it first-hand. So I felt that this would give me a first-hand experience into the nature of creation. Then, after a few years of acting, right enough, surely enough, I then felt the time was right for me to start writing.
And of course directing your own….
Well, that was a part of the same process. The two came together in a way. Once you’d started writing you obviously would be the best person to know how to line up your thoughts and the language of the play with the style that you want. Otherwise you’re putting too many people between yourself and the product. And if you have somebody who writes it, somebody who directs it, somebody else acts it, and you have too many cooks. Not always, but I quite like the idea that the creator sets out to do his own work.
Are you driven by a belief in a cause of which you are like the champion within the theatre, or by a sense of a need for personal achievement, or by something else?
I think it’s a combination, I think obviously there’s a desire for individual achievement, and there’s a desire to express your instrument, and if you have a particular instrument which you feel makes a good sound, and other instruments make a dull and flat sound, you’re frustrated if you can’t express this instrument – you want to show the world that this instrument is better than theirs.
But then again there’s another example of a cause. I’d like to express and be able to be a medium for the events that take place in our society, whatever they are, so that you’re in touch with the pulse. Whether through my play Decadence, expressing its overwhelming self-centred preening and greed, it’s like the seven deadly sins, or whether it’s to do with political chicanery and crime, which I expressed in Sink the Belgrano! when Margaret Thatcher, supported by a government, ordered the sinking of a ship, I couldn’t believe such a thing could happen in this day and age, I thought we’d passed that, it was redolent of the second world war. A ship that’s well outside a demarcation zone, a ship that’s actually sailing away; it was the act of a coward, the act of a desperate and morally sterile woman. So that touched me. I was interested to see it touched no other writers. Nobody even thought of writing about it, or very sparsely, and yet when I did write it, it was given a generally lukewarm reception, a lot of people did support what I was saying, and what I was saying is fairly common knowledge and hadn’t been articulated, so in this sense I’m fighting for a cause.
So I’d rather be a person who champions causes, those causes are of course our crusades against the sins and many evils that are done. And then sometimes I feel I don’t want a cause, I’d just like to do a tremendous performance, and that becomes a cause of my own. So I think a good balance between the social and individual cause is healthy. If you become too much concerned with self, I don’t think you do anything that’s very positive. I think if you’re inspired by something outside, especially if you’re inspired by the love of your fellow man and if you see that fellow man injured. Most people, particularly in England, respond very strongly to injustice, and yet artistically there is very little response. Socially there is. We have a great sense of awareness, we have more charitable organisations probably than any country on earth, the Green Party, War on Want, Oxfam, Save a Child, so many humanitarian things. We’re shocked and disgusted when we read about some dogs being eaten in South Korea, and yet when we write a play or deal with it artistically it’s regarded as a bit over the top, and, you know, we don’t want to look at it really. It’s an interesting thing that in the Arts we’re terribly cautious and a little bit drab. We want the Arts to reflect ourselves so the image of ourselves in the mirror is one of drabness. If I look at the English theatre and the English arts it’s well-meaning and sometimes very well acted, cos an actor can never be drab, but the general feeling is one of stamp drabness.
Your original play ‘East’ was a blast against all of that and it was very badly received.
East? No. East was well-received. Yeah, East was very well-received. There were tremendous reviews at the time, except for one or two people for whom such candour is anathema. Those people like Bernard Levin for example found it anathema, but he himself is not open and never expresses anything that’s deep within himself; everything he writes about is superficial, it’s facile. But generally, when East came out, it was acclaimed even then as a tremendous breakthrough, a poetic imagistic play.
Maybe I’ve got completely the wrong end of the stick, but I seem to have this idea of you having been… erm… ‘out-cast’ for a long time…
Its only recently that both the critics and the administration….
It’s only PR. They like to create the maverick figure, the lone wolf, the outsider and all that guff I think a lot of that’s press. There is a certain truth in that I didn’t work for establishment organisations because my works took a different route. I was never too diplomatic about concealing my contempt for those organisations and their practitioners.
Would you accept directorship of the National Theatre or the RSC if it was offered to you?
No, I wouldn’t at all.
Would you accept a knighthood?
No, no, I don’t want to accept anything. I don’t want buildings because you have too much responsibility. Art to me is like something I do when I’m hungry. I wouldn’t like to run a theatre, with a new play every ten weeks. I’d never get the charge.
Is that the reason why you don’t reform the London Theatre Group?
No. I wouldn’t mind reforming it, actually, finding a group of actors and a great administrator. One who says “Right now we’ve got this tour, now we’re going to Japan, America, Australia, and….” Half the thing about Arts is that you need a good angel, you need a good administrator/producer. Nijinsky would be dancing in a barn without Diaghilev. I don’t have that at the moment. I think the ideal would be to form a company that had permanent work for nine months of the year, where you could really select the actors that you liked and people that you were disposed towards, ethically and artistically, as opposed to throwing together an ad hoc company.
How do you think the Arts should be run in this country so that young people have a chance and so that characters such as yourself and Peter Brook aren’t driven abroad?
First of all you have to have adequate funding. I don’t know if it could be run differently to how it is at the moment, but I think there should be much more money for individuals and for experiments. There should be funding for leading practitioners of the Arts, like myself. In Paris they help experimental directors, they want to see different art forms diverging. So in Paris they gave funds to a guy who was starting at the same time as me. He was in charge of a group called 1789, and they gave him the Palais de Chayeaux, it’s like a great thousand-seat theatre, and they offered it to him. It’s unbelievable. They do that in Paris. Here a modern director might get a one-off. So the concept of the patronisation of the Arts is towards convention and towards platitudes, the theatre of the dead, the theatre of the living dead. Occasionally the odd maverick, a Richard Jones for example, who I think was one of the most inventive directors in this country, would do the odd one. But I think we should see the Arts supporting and creating institutions from modern works, so that the people should be able to rethink the way they perceive experience. Otherwise they see everything through the eyes of the hundredth revival of The Cherry Orchard and we’ve seen maybe one revival of Brecht’s plays, indifferently done. But you see Brecht was an antagonist, he was a propagandist, he had a violent streak which created a marvellous acerbic mix between poetry and propaganda, an exciting theatre, a very brave theatre, and I think closer to us than Chekov. I think Chekov is so foreign, I don’t know what they think. But when you are a bourgeois you are connected the whole world through. A Spanish bourgeois, a South American bourgeois, a British and and a Russian and a French, once you get into being a bourgeois you can forget about national characteristics, you somehow become deodorised from your roots, and you all want the same things, you want your afternoon tea, and so the bourgeois always love Chekov because they like a big set and they spend a lot of money and there’s a big house and it’s the despair of the rich worrying about a cherry orchard, that’s what they like, despair. Despair is a negative feeling, whereas Arturo Ui is about life, it’s about gangsters, power, the destruction of evil, the forces of good crushing evil, it’s a marvellous… it shows you how the canker of evil works. It’s not in our repertoire at the National, it’s never been done at the National, or at the RSC.
I don’t think his version of Edward II has been done in England for a long time. Do you like Marlowe?
Yeah. I love all the Elizabethans and Jacobeans. I love their language. And they’re influential to me, I mean I write using language and verse. The structuring of verse is like the structuring of a body with weights. You get a muscular highly definitioned body or you get a piece of flab. To me prose is a flabby body and verse is an athlete’s body.
What advice would you give to young actors today?
Read my plays and perform them. When they do, when they read the plays and they perform with the verse it’s like going to a great gymnasium. That language, or Shakespeare. Shake’s is a little bit remote. Also it’s been bourgeoisified. You’d think you can’t do Shakespeare unless you do it like Gielgud or Olivier, who both do it exceedingly well; they make word-music, although there’s no real characterisation. So read my plays, learn them, the language itself, get your tongues round those words, round those thoughts and those images and that will be a very good testing ground a good work-out for you to start with. If I was giving an aerobics class in language I’d say start with Berkoff. Then…. I wouldn’t say – there’s no other modern writer I would even look at or you’ll get nowhere, it’s like eating junk food – all you’ll get is constipation
What about training for young actors?
Training is essential. I think young actors should train as much as they can in every single facet that they can. I’d say that they should learn, read Stanislavsky learn – about the creation of a character – learn the science of acting, the science of approach. Start to think of the Arts like a doctor thinks of his skills, don’t think of acting like “Er, I’ll ave a go at this, yeah, I’ll ‘ave some of that”. Cut out all that cheap facile 70’s/80’s junk. Really study it, become a scientist, be proud of being an actor, go to a gym two or three times a week, train the body, so it’s an articulate instrument. And once you’ve got an articulate instrument you’ll have contempt for playing in plays that do not require this instrument.
Do you think that modern drama schools encourage or discourage that kind of approach?
I haven’t been to drama school for twenty years so I don’t know what they do now. I would say they’re all pretty useless. All they give you is a bit of experience, you know, you do a fencing class and there’s a voice class and you learn how to use the vowels and to open the palate, and those things are very good. But it doesn’t tell you how to think. You’ve still got to be a thinking person. And they don’t teach you how to think. You’ve got to be able to think and the only way to think is to forward think, in other words revolutionary. You don’t think “I’d like to get a series at the BBC, I’d like to be a chap who’d like to make money in Hollywood.” Otherwise you’re thinking like a pimp, and what they encourage these days is pimp thought. Most actors these days think like pimps and whores. They don’t think it would be good to do something for nothing, “I’ll do it because I believe in it”. They all want quick fame and money, and they’re lazy and scummy. I think it’s not altogether their fault, there’s been very few directors to encourage them to think and to use their bodies and minds.
You mentioned Olivier, what were the qualities you admired in him?
I think I admired, above everything, his beauty. That’s something that I feel he made, partly himself. That incredible passion shaped him, created that mask, defined that face, gave him that sculptured look. His voice. His courage. His tenacity. His desire for overwhelming excellence. That’s what I admire; his desire for breath-taking excellence. It’s a nineteenth century concept. Overwhelming, transcendental excellence. That’s what I admire, and he had the equipment to do it. He would say this has to be the best in the world. He was a showman. He was in the league with Houdini and Edmund Kean. He wanted to do something beyond the norm.
How has he influenced your work?
Just by watching him, you know, just watching him. Seeing how far he would go, how daring he would be, how he’d break up a line, attack a line, how he would split a sentence and just carry it. He had a sense of danger, which means you’re never quite sure which way he’s going to go. And what a sense of danger is, is a person who has in his armoury a number of weapons or skills …is it going to be a machine-gun, a rapier, a scimitar, a battle- axe… you’re never sure what is going to come out. I think that’s what I admired about him and his overwhelming humanness, his humanity.
There is a kind of school of actors who reached ascendancy in the mid century, who came through the war, who have a saintliness about them. They fight, they’re purged. It’s like they’re scorched, it’s as if they’d been through the fires and have come out cleansed, which the post-war actors do not, they look debauched, sick, flaccid, useless, whorish, they look at their faces, they’re junk; and you look at the old actors, they’re scoured, they’ve been through twenty, thirty, forty years of theatre, not just a couple of seasons. I mean, you have some very able actors, but they’ve never stayed the course. The Albert Finncys, the Peter O’Tooles, the Richard Harrises… they became seduced by movies, but they never returned to say, be champions, at the National Theatre. We should be seeing O’Toole in one building and Finney in the next and Berkoff in the next, maybe, but not even me, I shouldn’t even be there, but let them be there. Olivier was continually returning to that arena, and we remember O’Toole for maybe a half a dozen plays. Olivier you remember for sixty plays which is even then a modest output for a lifetime. I saw Paul Schofield the other night in Exclusive and I saw a man on the stage look like a saint and he had this wonderful wide voice, a voice that seemed to come from all parts of his body simultaneously, very very open, very weird sound he made, so that guy looks like a saint. Alec McCowan also has a saintly look. These are the real warriors. They say “Is Kenneth Brannagh taking over from Olivier?” I think well what do you mean taking over, there’s already a man there, Paul Schofield. How dare you insult the name of Olivier?
When will England see a new Berkoff play?
I’m not sure, but I hope soon, I hope this, next year. Kvetch and then I have Massage, so I’ve got two more in the pipeline.
And whatever happened to The Murder of Jesus Christ?
I’m still looking at it, I think I’ll maybe do that, I’ll get it out of the cupboard tomorrow. I think I just have the first scene to rewrite. Maybe I’ll start with that and do a workshop.
Why don’t you tour outside of London? Would you like to perform in Brighton for example?
Yes, I used to do this, I used to like touring, and I think it’s just a question of opportunity and administration. A lot of theatres now don’t tour, you find there are no longer any touring dates, well there are, but I just went off touring, I didn’t like hanging around all day, but I’m going to tour again. I thought we might take Salome for a provincial tour, just you know, see what it’s like, go to Newcastle, Manchester, Edinburgh.
Brighton! Definitely, yes.
And finally, is there a possibility of your leaving England to live abroad?
I don’t think that I will ever leave England permanently because it’s too cultured here. In one way there’s a lot of culture, and there’s a lot of respect and feeling for me and for the arts and for theatre. But there’s also a lot of pettiness here, well every country has its own pettiness, but there’s a lot of sniping and pettiness and small-mindedness which has crept in in the last decade or so. An extraordinary puerile mind seems to be insinuating itself everywhere. I can’t think of anywhere else I could go, though there’s a big chance that I could end up in California in the sunshine. Cos I like that and there’s a lot of theatre there, and although small, it’s funky, it’s charming, it’s bizarre, and England’s getting a bit yuppiefied and safe and small-minded.
Thank you very much.