THE scene is the Sahara desert. Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Berkoff are on location, filming a movie called Legionnaire. The shoot is going painfully slowly. There is time to kill. But Berkoff has a solution. "In a trailer you go mad," he says today. "You read books, you read the papers, you roll up cigarettes. What is better to do in a trailer than write? I wrote two works over two or three weeks – and I suddenly got involved with Oedipus."
It wasn't the first time Berkoff had focused on the Sophocles tragedy. His 1979 play Greek relocated the myth to the modern-day East End of London. Here the story of the king who inadvertently murders his dad and marries his mum was told in terms of waitresses in a decaying Britain and a hero called Eddy. Like his debut play East, Greek became a mainstay of student theatre groups in Edinburgh and helped secure Berkoff's place as an unofficial Fringe figurehead. Now he has brought his new, more faithful, version of Oedipus published in 2000, to the stage for the first time.
Having directed it in Liverpool and Nottingham earlier this year, he is joining the cast himself to play Creon on the Fringe. Simon Merrells – last seen in Edinburgh in Berkoff's adaptation of On the Waterfront – reprises the central role of the arrogant king and is joined by Anita Dobson as Jocasta, his wife and mother. Performed around a long table, with imagery drawn from renaissance painting, the production is a prime example of ensemble playing – heightened, intense and visceral.
"My theatre is actor-led," says Berkoff, 73, sitting in his East End studio flat overlooking the Thames. "In a Greek play, you have the ensemble who are the storytellers and the chorus who reflect the events. I see the ensemble as the backbone of the company, therefore they must have absolute control and command over the material and over the play. They are a dynamic reflection of the events, telling the story and articulating the doubts of the people. The leading actors are enhanced by this meteor tail of the ensemble. For that they must be ambitious, versatile and physically dextrous."
To return to the Greeks, he says, is something audiences have an appetite for, but it is an appetite rarely satisfied. "The Greeks do speak to us very profoundly," he says. "It's unfortunate that we don't see enough of them – or, when we do see them, they're not put on in a way that expresses the underlying depth of humanity."
It makes perfect sense that filling the wall opposite him should be a collection of nine Peter Howson originals. The Glasgow artist, with his bold, masculine directness, finds an ideal match in Berkoff's muscular theatre. "All my savings go into Peter Howson," says Berkoff, who played Bond villain General Orlov in Octopussy. "There's an intensity, a compassion, a strong feeling, an identification with the common man and also the poetic description of labour. That's something you don't get very much of in the present art world."
Today Berkoff, dressed in black tracksuit and rolling a cigarette, is in benign spirits – breaking off only to rant about the bourgeoisification of his beloved East End – but whether as an actor, director or writer, he is a tough-talking artist who despises mediocrity. Far from the prim Greek tragedies of the classroom, his version of Oedipus is an abrasive play that talks of "new-born brats", "black bile" and "sceptic poison". "You've got to make it real, give it substance, give it gravity, give it some kind of grittiness," he says. "Most Greek plays are dull as dishwater. They're so boring: 'Oh! Great Zeus, mighty king – la, la, la!'"
He demands a similar kind of forcefulness of his actors and knows exactly what he's looking for: "I can just see the rhythm of their body language, the swiftness of response, the way they read, good timbre in their voices."
As a director, he has no qualms about cutting his own script when he needs to, but he also enthuses about it as if someone else had written it. "The text flows, it has a drive," he says. "It's rhythmic, because I'm a very rhythmic person – I've studied dance, I love music – so it's great to work on this text. It's not so much about muscularity as the jazz of text. It was the same in the blues, in black music, when the people took hold of music and made it their own. When the working man started making music, it was the sound of the people that was exciting. You have to make theatre as dynamic, thrilling, awesome as possible. I want the audience to see something they have never before seen."
WHERE & WHEN
Aug 3–29 August (not 9, 10, 17 or 24), 1.20pm
£10–£17.50, 0131 556 6550
© Mark Fisher 2011
More coverage at theatreSCOTLAND.com
Sign up for theatreSCOTLAND updates
Sign up for theatreSCOTLAND discussion