Published in The List
Keeping it in the family
Actor. Playwright. Director. Fringe darling. Big-screen bad guy. Steven Berkoff is all these things and more, a singular talent who has ploughed his own furrow. But for all his unique qualities, the 73-year-old says he is every bit the company man. This is no idle boast; having worked in Hollywood, he has seen institutionalised egotism first-hand.
'I recently worked on a film where some of the leading actors didn't even talk to me – and I was playing a leading part,' says a man whose film career has included A Clockwork Orange, Octopussy, and Rambo. 'I tried to talk – "How are you?" – a little chatter, but they're limited and they stick in their character and if you're playing the bad guy, they can't look at you at all. It's the most sterile environment. They have strict schedules, the money is colossal, so everybody's a bit more wired, but I was amazed at how bloated they were with their self-importance.'
This is why, when the actor playing Creon was unavailable for the Fringe run of Oedipus, which played in Liverpool and Nottingham earlier this year, Berkoff himself could take his place without having to worry about crossing any us-and-them divide. 'You read about bullying directors, but that wouldn’t work,' he says. 'We're allies.'
It is also why the whole ensemble has such a presence in this staging. Gathered round a long table, evoking images of the last supper and Renaissance art, the chorus is every bit as important as the lead players. 'We do everything on the table, through the table,' he says. 'When Creon comes on, they dance and they eat, because eating isn't only the celebration of food but of companionship, of allies, of friends. We do a lot of that, a lot of touching. There's something quite beautiful because of the table.'
In other words, it is the opposite of the kind of hierarchical theatre he detests. 'You often get the star actor coming on and the ensemble are just trash who sit in the dressing room playing Scrabble and occasionally come on,' he says. 'There's no need for them, we don’t care for them. Sometimes the actors have never even spoken to the star of the play.'
Joining him for the Edinburgh run is Anita Dobson, who may be better known for her role as Angie Watts in EastEnders (not to mention being Mrs Brian May), but cut her teeth at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, in the 1970s and starred on stage in Berkoff's Kvetch. She plays Jocasta, who turns out to be both wife and mother of Oedipus in the archetypal story that gave Freud so much to think about. 'It is one of the most extraordinary and horrific tales of how you are never really in control of your own destiny,' he says.
It is a story that has occupied Berkoff himself over the years. One of his landmark plays was Greek, which reframed the Sophocles tale in terms of contemporary London. He wrote this latest version of *3Oedipus*2 ten years ago to pass the time during a particularly lengthy film shoot and, although it is faithful to the setting of the original, it has a swagger and punch that is all his own. His is a heightened type of theatre and he has no time for the anodyne pleasantries of your standard English translation. Neither does he care for your conventional western way of rehearsing.
'We always start on the stage,' he says. 'We never discuss it. Most directors sit round with the actors for a week discussing. They discuss the character, motivation, lines, humour and rhythms and, by the end of the week, the actors are ready to go but they can't move. All their muscles are seized up. I don't believe in talking to the actors. I think it’s pompous. These guys often know more than you and the work is done on the stage.'
Oedipus, Pleasance Courtyard, 0131 556 6550, 3–29 Aug (not 9, 10, 17 or 24), 1.20pm, £16–£17.50 (£14–£15.50).
© Mark Fisher 2011
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