October 16, 2008

by Aaron Alexander  
Wellington, October 2008 

Six years ago friends, drama school classmates and I mounted a production of Steven Berkoff’s East. Like undoubted hundreds of drama school graduates across the world every year, we were seduced by Berkoff’s fiery language, aggressive iconoclastic style and rollicking, bawdy humour. We got to swear a lot and vent great gouts of the pain and rage three years in an institution like drama school can breed. We gave away beer, laughed, sang and made no money whatsoever. It was glorious.

Today, I went to meet the man who made that play, and countless others. An actor, director, playwright and author who I believe stands tall as one of the most influential and significant figures in Western theatre of the last half century. Also, a man whose media-cultivated reputation is as a firebrand, an irascible bad boy, a man who tears critics apart, gives interviewers nightmares, gets them fired, and even, in one case, sues them.

No question I was nervous. When Steven Berkoff walked out of the lift into the foyer of the Duxton Hotel, he looked straight at me, and seemed to know instinctively that the sweaty white guy fumbling with a DAT recorder was here to see him, and ask him questions. He sank onto a couch in a position that, to me looked uncomfortable, but seemed to suit him. It was a sinuous, reptilian posture not unlike the green snake slithering over the shoulder of his tee- shirt. Mr. Berkoff looked at rest, but not relaxed. Ready.

The interview lasted just over twenty minutes, during which Mr. Berkoff was forthcoming and gracious in response to my questions. He covered memories and theories with the assurance not just of a man who has been interviewed countless times, but also of a man who does not seem to censor or even pause much during self-expression. His voice sounded weary to begin with, but he seemed to warm to the interview, gaining energy and focus, his eyes spending more and more time on mine, until the point where, quite suddenly and without doubt, it was over. He stood, shook my hand and left politely but quickly, leaving me buzzing and exhilarated. I floated off down the street until his PR person called me back to collect the hat I’d left behind in my post-interview stupor.  

The following is a transcript of the interview (with my own nervous verbal farts edited out):

AA: What would be your earliest memory of theatre?

SB: Well, my mother used to take me to the big variety houses in London when I was a kid. For her, theatre was variety, and they had all these wonderful, what they call ‘Empires’. You know, they were like great theatres for all the best comedians, high-wire acts, magicians, all the kind of amazing, kind of artistic, creative performers who’d just do ten-minute acts, and sometimes singers. We used to go to the Finsbury Park Empire, which was near where I was living, in Manor House. And occasionally we’d go to the London Palladium, that was the big centre. There you’d see – at that time, post-War – it was the time when all the great celebrities would come over and play the Palladium, like Danny Kaye, Carmen Miranda, Sammy Davis, all those people. So my first introduction to theatre was in the very, very highly professional, very high technique world of variety. That was my first impression of theatre.

AA: What was the atmosphere in the house like?

SB: It was electric, because it was dynamic, you had the orchestra, and you had all the chorus girls, and you had all the amazing dancers and it was absolutely thrilling because you could never get bored, because when one act finishes, then the next act, then you’ve got the, what they call the leading act, or, I don’t know what the expression is, you know…the main act of the evening, and you look forward to that. Then they come on – big fanfare – and you’re seeing somebody that you’ve read about, heard about, maybe seen in movies live, and that was very thrilling. So I think that she ignited in me, my mother, a taste for the theatre through that.

AA: Was there a moment when you decided ‘I could do this, I want to do this, I’m going to do this’?

SB: Yes, I did, I thought ‘well this is rather thrilling, I wouldn’t mind doing something like that.’ I had a feeling that somehow, in some way, I could put my world into this, there’s some way I could link up with this. And then a few years later I started to see plays, and I thought they were great fun, but a bit ordinary, and I thought ‘well I could do that, they’re just walking about the stage.’ Compared to the variety artists, who I thought were really brilliant, and really clever, and not only clever but energetic and often very courageous, I thought straight theatre looked dull. So I thought, ‘well, any idiot can do that.’ I remember seeing plays but never being excited by them, because plays appealed to an older group. So, I wasn’t that turned on by the theatre so I thought I’d like to be in movies, be a movie actor, that seemed thrilling. But, of course, the process is to go via – for me – it was getting into the theatre first, develop your technique, get a bit of confidence, bit of courage, and most of all to establish your, kind of, credentials, that you could create and … capture an emotion, a character. And so that’s why I went to drama school and that’s why I started in theatre, and I’ve never stopped.

AA: You went to the Webber Douglas Academy…

SB: Yes.

AA: That’s a fairly traditional English drama school?

SB: Yeah, very traditional drama school. In those days it was almost half like a finishing school for debs. They used to get on my nerves because they were such – these, mostly women – they were such lazy bitches, and some of the men too, of course. The women didn’t take it that seriously. But I kept on, and then I finished that drama school and went into rep. Then I heard about Jacques LeCoq, the mime school in Paris, and I became fascinated with that, and went to Paris and studied with Jacques LeCoq for a short period. And that’s where I understood the idea that the body can express a million things that are absolutely beyond the realm of an ordinary actor. So then I combined both; both the mime and movement of LeCoq, and also the drama and the text.

AA: What was he like, Jacques LeCoq?

SB: Oh, he was a wonderful man, very good teacher; very expressive, very articulate, had little patience when things didn’t go right, but when they did go right, he celebrated you, and he was loyal to you as you were to him. Then I started doing my own productions, and he would say – he didn’t speak English – but he would say, ‘this totally expresses all the ideas and philosophy, the techniques, the system of L’Ecole Jacques LeCoq.’ Once he came to see my production of Salome by Oscar Wilde, he came to the Edinburgh Festival and we did an interview together. That was probably one of the proudest moments of my life – to have one of the world’s great masters actually validating what I did. That was fantastic.

AA: Did you speak French when you went over?

SB: No, I didn’t, I had very, very little French. He held the whole class in French, and you had to pick up what you could. But his wife, a charming woman, she’s Scottish, she would give a brief synopsis of what he wanted in English. But I went on a summer course and you had about 20 different nationalities there, and very few could speak French. But we all got on, and we all did what we could, and it was absolutely fascinating. It was a full day every day, and we developed and got better, and then we had to do, at the end of the session, our own creation. I gained a great deal from it, I thought it was wonderful, but I also studied with one of his pupils for a year as well, so it was familiar to me.

AA: After training, what drove you to make your own work, rather than be a hired gun?

SB: Well, I think what really started it was unemployment. Unemployment can be the greatest stimulus to creation. So rather than get too depressed, which I was, unemployed, waiting around, ringing up the agents, ringing up the BBC … Because then the BBC did a lot of drama, did a lot of plays, so you’d ring up an office and say ‘Could I come in? What is he doing? Could I have an audition?’ And sometimes you got lucky that way. But what really got me going was the fact that I didn’t want to be unemployed, out of work and have little self-regard … feel I was just another unemployed bum actor. So I got together with a group of actors, it was just to keep working, keep our ideas percolating along, try things, and basically just to do something.
     I used to get very depressed when I was unemployed, deeply, deeply depressed, sometimes doing odd jobs, trying new things. But then I started and I thought ‘well, why don’t I do a play?’ So I started looking around for a play to do, something I could adapt, just three or four people, and I came across a short story by Franz Kafka called In the Penal Colony and I thought ‘this is the most amazing piece of writing, amazing short story’ and I thought ‘this would be a perfect piece to do.’ It took me a long time to get the courage up, to get the actors, to start working, and to make the set which was this incredible machine. I was fortunate; I had a friend who was an architect, who built it. It lead me to doing the major work of Kafka, which is Metamorphosis, and I thought ‘this is one of the most astounding stories ever written, probably one of the most astounding short novellas of the twentieth century’ and I thought, ‘how better to start my career, than by adapting and putting on Metamorphosis?’, which I did. By then, I was about 30, a bit older probably, about 31, and I did it at The Round House in London, and it was a tour de force.
     So, I never started off doing, you know, John Osborne or plays of that ilk. They didn’t interest me at all. I thought they were another world. It is a different domain; it’s a world of normalcy, you know, the everyday world, which didn’t interest me. I was interested in the more fantastical, unbelievable, surreal world of the interior of Man’s mind. So the Kafka Metamorphosis was the one. I’ve done it many times, I’ve done it all over the world, and I’ve directed it in every country in the world, practically.

AA: There was a production not long ago, just down the road…

SB: Yeah, I heard that yeah…

AA: I want to talk just briefly about East

SB: Yeah, yeah…

AA: …like probably thousands of drama students I discovered it at drama school and did it with friends the moment we graduated…


SB: Yes, yeah.  

AA: I wanted to ask you about the ‘cunt speech’.

SB: Oh, yes.  

AA: Can you describe the feeling the first time you stand up in front of a paying audience and you’re going to say that speech?

SB: Oh, well it was very nerve-wracking, ‘cos I didn’t know if people … It’s still a taboo word, and that’s what made it interesting to write it out. I wrote out an earlier version of East and the criterion at the time … it was almost a bit like … graffiti. You wanted to be as naughty, as outrageous, as disgusting, shocking, profane … I just wanted to see what I could write.  Because that was the period of the 70’s, of – the 60’s had just, you know, swamped us – of total liberation.  So I tried to write a play which expressed everything, told everything, told every story, and of course cunt was very important to teenagers. (Chuckles) I think it’s probably just as important today for old guys too. But, ah … the man’s obsession, desire, it was meant to be lyrical, meant to be a kind of a poem to cunt. But I was very, very nervous and I kind of raced through it. And then, as maybe you’ve read in my autobiography, after a few days I took it slightly slower, and there was a little bit of nervous giggling, and then once I involved mime in it, it suddenly took off. Once as I started off, and then once I came to one word, I looked up (begins to mime touching an enormous vulva)and imagined it, and then the audience really laughed. So that anticipated all the, you know, sexual, whatshername, Vagina Monologues and all that stuff, anticipated that by 30 years. We were doing that years and years before they even came on the scene. And then once I got into it, so to speak, metaphorically, it then started to work.

AA: As well as sex, is it fair to say that violence is a theme in a lot of your work?

SB: No, it’s not so much violence as outrage, energy, dynamism, a reflection on society. There’s not really that much violence, it’s more lyricism, passion, sexuality, desire, love and violence maybe being a kind of background of England. Mostly it’s about love, passion, feelings, frustrations of my life that I had, which I put into plays like Greek.

AA: Did you ever have … there’s a relationship in East and West of two best mates, two men who have an intense passionate, non-sexual relationship with all the dynamics … did you have a friend like that when you were young?

SB: I had odd friends like that, but not really like I describe. Maybe it was more of a wish-fulfillment, of a mate. We all, as young people, want to have a really staunch ally, and I was always looking for this. And I did, I had good mates from time to time and then they would fade away, I don’t know why. But I always longed for a kind of a brother-type mate, that we would be so close. I had it mainly with my company, with actors. With other actors I formed that kind of relationship, of great camaraderie, solidarity, loyalty, with actors and then sometimes that would fade as well. So it’s been a kind of a life-long, really, desire. Probably that’s why I put it in the play, it’s more of a longing.  

AA: You’ve said in your autobiography that you wanted nothing you did to resemble anything you’d done before …

SB: Yes.

AA: But there’s developed this adjective, ‘Berkovian’ …

SB: Yes.

AA: … in the theatre, like Chekovian, does that adjective mean anything to you?

SB: Not really.

AA: Not really?

SB: No, it means, um … Berkovian means a kind of a … a possible attention to the passions of the young, to the common man, a working-class ethic, which is to do with a joyous expression of life as opposed to what is in middle-class theatre which is neurotic, acerbic, bitter, twisted, weird. Berkovian is more, in a way, a salute to the energy of young … the energy of people, the idealism that’s in us, and I guess that, to me, would be Berkovian.

AA: You’ve been performing now for a long time, your own work, often very physically demanding stuff. How do you maintain your body and mind for work?

SB: Well, I find that theatre is the best exercise. I mean every night’s like going to the gym. Sometimes I get very, very tired, but, you know, once you kick in, you know, the adrenalin takes over. You can’t force yourself beyond what you can physically do, but I find that I try to, you know, keep fit, don’t indulge, don’t drink too much, hardly smoke, I do occasionally, it’s not good. I try to keep as pure, in a way, as possible.
     Like a lot of actors in the past, particularly theatre actors who only do naturalism, a lot of them get drunk, and I think it’s to replace what you put on the stage. When you come off the stage, you’re so alive, you can’t go to sleep, it’s 11, 12 o’clock, you can’t sleep, you eat, you drink and you’re wide awake. So, I think drink comes into that just to knock you out. And I think a lot of actors have destroyed themselves through drink, it’s appalling, but I’ve never done that. I quite like a drink at the end, of course, that’s my reward. So, I think do everything in moderation and you keep yourself fit forever.

AA: It’s kind of a banal question, but do you have a pre-show warm-up routine?

SB: No, none. (diabolical Berkoff grin)

AA: (laughs)

SB: No, I go for a long walk in the afternoon, and then I do a little bit of exercise, before I go on I do press-ups, just to hyperventilate, and then I go on.

AA: You’ve written several scripts that feature actors as characters, Actor, Dahling You Were Marvellous, Acapulco

SB: Yeah.

AA: …and an image I get is of shallow, desperate creatures, aware that what they do is absurd, but desperate to try and find some meaning and some seriousness in it. Would that be a fair assessment of your feelings about actors … or about humanity in general?

SB: Yeah, well actors are such mercurial people, and I find them always very, very interesting and, ah … so bizarre. Their habits, their needs, their requirements, you know, really so peculiar that they’re actually a fascinating group.  As Pirandello says, in Six Characters in Search of an Author, they’re always needing an author to give them life. Basically actors are very fiercely idealistic. They like to attach themselves to heroes, and of course to villains. They really enjoy and thrive on plays where a strong point is made; a strong moral, political, ethical point. They love plays like that. They love playing Hamlet because the want to show a very strong philosophic and moral streak, but when they don’t have that, they tend to go into a little bit of limbo, searching for their character. So I’ve often found them a source of fascinating material to put on stage.

AA: When you’re casting, or looking to put together an ensemble, what do you look for in actors?

SB: I look for people who can physically … are physically comfortable with themselves and have also physical skills. That demonstrates to me that they care about the body, and they care about the images the body can make. Therefore they have more of a poetic sensibility. Actors who can’t move; no interest in them.

AA: The show One Man used to be three parts?

SB: Yeah, I had another part, a very good part, a second part called The Actor. The man who’s always looking for a job, his life is falling apart, but I found to do the three in the evening was just too much. Too much. And also it’s a lot for the audience. So, now I’ve expanded Tell-tale, and expanded Dog, and that’s enough. And I can do the other one, The Actor, with a different group of things.

AA: In theatre terms, you’re now a star, a name. The show is sold, to an extent, on your personality and reputation. Do you feel that changes your relationship with an audience?

No, not really. I think it’s good if I have got a reputation going it brings people in. It makes more of a responsibility because the expectancy is usually high. I think they come in and they think ‘ooh, we’re going to get something special’. So it’s up to you to deliver that, not now and again but every single night. So, you know, that reputation comes with an added, and quite intense responsibility.

AA: What inspires you to keep making work, to keep coming to the other side of the world and touring?

SB: Just to get out of the house.

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