Steven Berkoff: How seedy humans have become

Steven Berkoff talks sex, violence and Shakespearean villains. Laura Davis meets the self-styled bad boy of British theatre

STEVEN BERKOFF has a fearsome reputation. In previous interviews he has dismissed questions as “silly” and has been known to rant at theatre critics, so I’m practically shaking in my boots as I dial the number for his office.

Yet the Berkoff who answers the phone seems to have mellowed, although it’s clear he is still impatient with much that goes on in the world.

Fittingly for the man who has combined creating revolutionary theatre with a series of film baddies (Octopussy’s General Orlov – Beverly Hills Cop’s Victor Maitland), he is currently revisiting his one-man show Shakespeare’s Villains, which comes to the Sefton Celebrates Writing festival in the autumn.

“I wanted to do some Shakespeare to show what a wonderful kind of old ham I am,” he says deadpan, as if daring me to laugh.

In the first of a series of increasingly convoluted similes, he compares performing a one-hander to being a solo pianist or singer.

“You find actors have always got to have 10 other ghastly people to work with, live with, travel with just to do a play,” he adds, with a flash of the old acerbity.

So he prefers solo shows?

“I do sometimes and sometimes not,” he replies ambiguously. “Sometimes I love working with other actors.”

Perhaps unsurprising to those familiar with his work – once described euphemistically by the theatre critic Aleks Sierz as “in yer face” – Berkoff is drawing on the sex and violence in Shakespeare’s tragedies.

“There are connections I find between the two all the way through,” explains the 72-year-old actor.

“The absence of one produces the other. You see this in Macbeth when he agrees to kill the king he makes a sudden explosion of flattery to his wife, saying she’s such a powerhouse she should bring forth only boys.

“This is curious, that if you agree to kill somebody you would talk about birth. He doesn’t realise what he’s saying and I don’t even think Shakespeare knew.”

Such is his self-confidence that Berkoff believes Shakespearean scholars have never made this observation. Yet he is modest about his discovery.

“An actor would notice it because he keeps repeating the lines,” he adds.

The theatre was an escape for the young Jewish man, born in 1937 to Pauline and Alfred Berks – a tailor who was reportedly something of a flashy dresser and gambler and paid little attention to his son.

“It was a tremendous way to change from being an ordinary person to being someone romantic, exotic, dynamic, courageous or villainous,” says Berkoff, using a characteristic stream of adjectives.

“It was a way of adopting an alternative personality, seemed quite exciting.

“To be doing something whereby you could expressive significant ideas and values that you believed in.”

His earliest works include strikingly original adaptations of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony and The Trial, while his own writing includes the violent and isolating plays East, West and Greek.

His theatrical treatment cleaved audiences in half, leaving some enraptured and others offended, but never, ever apathetic.

“I’ve always wanted to be different but I didn’t set out to be different,” contradicting himself again.

“I wanted theatre to be something a bit more than what I was seeing; to have a dynamic between the actors; to create great ensemble works.

“There was quite a bit of that in the 60s and 70s but now there’s hardly anything. We’re back to plays with no movement, no interconnection between actors.”

He rarely goes to the theatre these days, finding in productions of dance and opera the excitement he feels that plays generally lack.

And he is critical of what he terms “modern directors” who “can neither write nor act so they teach actors how to act. It’s all a bit ridiculous.”

Berkoff talks of unspecified “early years”, when the line between writers and actors were blurred (he cites Shakespeare and Molière), pointing out that today he is one of the few to do both.

His subjects range from incidents that have infuriated him to those that have caused him delight. He recently wrote a poem about a British journalist killing a baboon in Tanzania – “other people thought ‘oh yes he did that, a bit nasty’ but I felt sickened by this wretched thing” – and another entitled Wimbledon, about “last year’s tennis match between Andy Roddick and I forget who he was battling.”

“I’m one of these maybe green types, and the planet to me is like a farmer with his farm or a horticulturalist with his garden,” he launches into another simile.

“If somebody poisons my garden I get very, very – what’s the word? – outraged. Not so much angry – outraged. The only way I can express it is to write about it.”

However, he insists: “I don’t write negatively, all my writing is positively fuelled.”

He seems to experience more extreme emotions than the average person – brought almost to tears by the beauty of a seagull landing outside a hotel window in Venice, then boiling over with disgust when the peace was shattered by the clicketty click of a woman’s heels.

“It tore into the beautiful softness of that sun-filled morning,” he says, “and I thought ‘how pathetic some women are. They’re so unfortunately conditioned’.

“Then she got out her mobile and starts yacking. I thought ‘how seedy the human race has become’.”

Then he checks himself.

“I don’t mean to say all women are idiots, God forbid.”

Liverpool Daily Post, 28/7/10