A very decadent encounter with Steven Berkoff
by Fiona Russell Powell - The Face
STEVEN BERKOFF IS a phenomenon grown from the inadequacies of English theatre; a spanner in the works that only appears once in a blue moon. As actor and playwright he is both a brilliant mimic and wily imagarist. Apart from performing and directing his own work — the best example of which is perhaps his play EAST — he has freely adapted the untouchable classics such as Shakespeare's Hamlet and Macbeth, Aeschyllus's Agamemnon, Edgar Allen Poe's Fall Of The House Of Usher and Kafka's The Trial and Metamorphosis — brave, bold interpretations which only a man of extraordinary talent and arrogance could pull off. He has staged all these plays with The London Theatre Group, his own company. Recently he's been enjoying a successful second run at the Arts Theatre with his outrageous 'comedy' Decadence — a scathing attack on the upper classes. Some of his screen acting credits are impressive: Clockwork Orange, McVicar, Barry Lyndon and The Passenger; others show the dilemma of whether to starve for art or to pay the rent. Berkoff chooses to pay his taxes and will be seen in his perennial role of a Russian villain in the new James Bond film Octopussy. But order will be restored in May, when he will be staging for the first time in Britain his much-acclaimed WEST.
FIONA: I don't like to approach my subjects cold, I've known this one of old well, two months at least. Research has revealed him to be a lecherous beast but an adventurous man who'll go for my plan of interviewing him in bed. I knew he'd see my point of view Journalism? Yawn, do something new try something different. Create a stir make people realise it's not the usual blur. Yes. I thought this will give them the shakes early morning double take and choke on Wheataflakes. But this was not to be the case . . . the provocative setting was deemed too obscene and not by the magazine. Your trusty hack was stopped mid-track by the man whom this is all about. The old roué himself was having doubts.
A sudden attack of decorum was the problem. His digestive system had gone all queasy he began to feel most uneasy. Went all coy, turned a delicate shade of pink what would his dear old mum (and wife) think? When she saw in undeniable black and white the ins and outs of where he stored his cock at night. He got cold feet, lost his nerve, his Iolanthian facade he must preserve at all costs, mustn't stain the reputation. OK. adaptable as ever I adjusted to the situation decided to meet on neutral territory. Eating is his second favourite activity so the choice of (battle) ground seemed obvious to me.
Joe Allens, WC2, the place to be. A regular habitué of this gastronomic den Berkoff can always get a table at ten. A very trendy eaterie home-from-home amongst the theatrical literati actors, directors, dancers, pen-pushers and other such pretentious monied lushes all congregate, and according to status get the best tables and the choice of waiters cry into each others steaks over bad reviews and ostracise the critic from the Daily News. Seated round check tablecloth on wooden chairs consult the menu, ignore the stares gin and T for me and Steven's having a Marguerita while I'm sipping he can tell me about Total Theatre.
STEVEN: Total Theatre is Total me it's all about giving some ecstasy. It struggles gamely to put out some voltage give punters a clout. It's got to be not just some verbs spewed out by turds but action, body, mystery the blast of octane power from the gut a shape to look at visuals cut from space but using just your brains and face your body too will make the lot construct the set and be the plot. No million pounds spent on dead sets that just replace imagination's rightful place. Total Theatre is total life rhythm, mime, shape and light. Not two boring actors on the boards spewing out some dreary writers hoard of cliches that have us reeling bored and then steps up to claim awards! Total Theatre's like the street, the earth, the storm, the ecstasy Total Theatre's total life the private dream, the painful knife that cuts into your brain the knife of pain releases all that's most profane Total Theatre's proud, erect and blood filled It thrusts its head into the womb of the darkened theatre waiting to be raped.
FIONA: From German big-time success to Islington fringe from Antonioni to Kubrick's Clockwork Orange your prolific career brought you so dangerously near to doubtful dizzy heights of international fame but you have fondly carved your name indelibly on the hearts of the deco art loving Hampstead yoghurt eaters faithful patrons of fringe theatres. Nonconformist anarchic and punky you cater to every bourgeois culture junky while you're acting the clown every 2CV in town is parked outside neat on Great Newport Street.
You're a big fish in a little pond soon you'll have to push beyond but don't bugger off to the States where you say they appreciate your outrageous parodies of English life stay with the trouble and strife. Mrs Arts Council of Britain needs you to help us through the hard limes the bitter fight he the leading light spearhead the campaign and prepare to bombard them with your subversive literary warfare. Go for youth I'm young and you appeal to me plan and reveal your strategy take risks ... what'll it be?
STEVEN: What will it be? What strategy you ask, teenage reporter blasts. It is to splatter out my words create a lassoo round the world where art and passion go hand in hand and energy is not a force to ban not a thing to smirk and snide at by Fleet Street tosspots in worn out strides. The British hate subversive minds they love to have their art made blind to outrage challenge sex or love they all prefer the gentle touch a little Chekhov or a clutch of Stoppard is simply a must a formula is what they crave the stunt that makes theatre a grave. Old any council though still will help Berkoff eat the bitter pill by somehow forking out the bread without which Total Theatre's dead What I need is what makes oak trees that's the seed the youth. They know what turns them on what bites they know what's shit from scum thank God for them. They can't be conned like aging farters strolling on the well lined stages stacked with gelt (or playing safe with the nation's wealth. We'll send our armies round the world an army of words well honed like pearls machine gun bullets of steel verbs to penetrate the heart and nerves. Not Thatcher-like to kill and maim in stupid up-tight British games but Berkoff-like to stun and claim the luture generation make them flame.
FIONA: Physically you resemble a Bukowski bum cue comparison quote (I think, an excellent one) "... he had gone the formula of having his grey hair short-cropped to Indicate youth, efficiency, intelligence and brutality." You have all these qualities and more, hope the brutality comes more to fore as darkness draws on and the evening grows long did you find this summation complete? How would you describe yourself, my sweet?
STEVEN: Describe myself…ah that's the task to ask the mirror to reveal the glass or what's beneath the silver paint I'll tell you things I oughtn't to or ain't (Oh God …. A mask of granite hewn with chisels from the blasts of fate). A kid who climbed the mountain found atop a judge and pissed into his grizzled face thumb nosed those peers who claim to have the ears of those who run the state adventure round the turmoiled seas when emotion's waves do blast and quake and heave you up and smash you down be Moby Dick or Ullyses hearing the sirens on the wind cut seas rather than boating on Hampstead Heath. To challenge more end more even the law of your own limits keep on forth the more you give the more you've got so give H out don't give a sot or worry that's for others in a hurry the ponces trembling for careers. Get out blast off to act to fear but never say I could have when you should one day. Amble through my life but speak it true reveal the very core inside of you describe the very pores inside your flesh describe the warts on the human face.
FIONA: Your views on blood sports make meat-eating seem like a crime by the way. Was your chopped liver tasty? That hamburger looks divine. With Decadence your observances seem to come from close quarters of the Ruling Class whom you so mercilessly slaughter. You ridicule their hobbies like fox-hunting for kicks with your needle sharp wit you knock 'em for six a vicious satire based on distaste and disgust yet how come you know so much about the upper crust? (Goodness, this spinach salad is quite unique) allow me to quote you some Mervyn Peake: "... one of them, evidently the wit was contorting his face, as pliable as puny, into shapes that appeared to be independent of the skull, if indeed he had a skull beneath that elastic flesh." That description fits you to a tee a master of expression and mimicry a mouth as stretchy as a rubber band as wide as the Rio Grande. Know you studied mime at the Ecole Jacques le Coq, why plump for a career so uncertain and unorthodox? For an East End lad with nothing and everything to lose surely acting is a dangerous trade to choose?
What induced me to become an actor first was to be a flight from stale
reality the East End's grey and drizzled
followed like damp decay outrage inertia sloth vile
jobs inadequate to be accountant or boss of grotty
chain or hunt a
quid like cesspool
bugs or saucepan lids whose life instills the code
if you ain't rich you're just a toad or bug crawling
a street to
be squashed by
the million feel crying gimme gimme! gotta succeed.
So dragging my fifteen year old limbs from place
/ said a hymn
I prayed in
menswear stores I woke in dawn when dark night poured
cold winds onto my gentle face to add up sweets in
Stamford Hill's amusement arcade and made a will
declared that I would one day be God's gift to the Empire at
Finsbury Park Empire
saw the start the first wobbles of Berkovian art
but what induced this little fart to say no never will
I turn back no never
or slap but smash on and on no way be slopped turn
my whole being into rock
rather than sludge up Oxford Street looking for wages
FIONA: Your re-works of Kafka to Edgar Allen Poe from Shakespeare classics to Aeschyllian hero just goes to prove what a brave man can do. The same philosophy that Blake toted, to you applies: "Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires." It's clear to me that this should be your quest to save a nation floundering in a mire of mediocrity and second best dull drama provided and executed by graduates of Oxford and RADA in that order. It seems only you can save us from the pit with your acid wit cruel quips words are your weapons your tongue is your whip slops the rot curbs the plague but do you foresee a healthy future for the British stage?
STEVEN:I see the future crystal balls holds all the fate inside glass walls / peek and see great castles in the air a wilderness of monkeys going spare a Shakespeare risen from the grave new fleshed in twentieth century age an Oscar Wilde or Byron loo or Henry Irving whose ghost now struts the Lyceum's rancid space throw in a Meyerhold to create great plays an Artaud just a dash to add the vision and madness you might add at the back Franz Kalka on the wrack on which his tortured nerves were stretched. Now add a little menace East End laws an eye for an eye street vengeance scores.
Upon my brain survival. Don't let the pig shit slain you wash it off their smears will never tarnish you or gain an ounce of soul. Decadence Is here to stay but those who do condemn it will decay in loathsome slink of ignorance self-righteous tits who fall to Me the rotting plumbing beneath their sinks. This is enough I've spouted up a spew of verbiage It's been a treat to put it down but now I must piss off down town to where my faithful punters will be found watching England's greatest clown!