Edinburgh Festival 1993: Words shall never hurt him: Has old age mellowed Steven Berkoff? Nick Curtis confronts the bovver-boy bard with his worst crits and lives to write another day

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Exclusive: Steven Berkoff is a pussycat. The playwright, actor and director known as a theatrical thug, the boot- boy bard who once issued a death threat (more publicity than reality) against the critic Nicholas de Jongh, is back at Edinburgh's Assembly Rooms with One Man, comprising two of his monologues and one of Poe's. And he turns out to be as nice as pie.

True, the fierce animation, the scabrous language and the reptilian snarl are still there. The genteel patrons of Edinburgh's Cafe Royal are nonplussed when he builds a huge penis in the air (as in his play East) or talks in a loud Jewish accent about being distracted from sex (as in Kvetch). But his continuing war against a system which favours naturalism ('all that funny bollocks . . . imperialistic theatre') over his own seething, expressionistic onslaughts is waged more in sorrow than in anger these days.

'I'm 56 now. I'm old, ancient. Every morning I crawl out of bed and grab my pills so I can live a few more days. I'm worried I'll have a heart attack on stage. As I get older, I become weaker, less tormented, institutionalised: these days I can go to the theatre and see a lot of boring idiots doing Noel Coward plays and think, ahhh, that's charming.'

This can't be right. Where are the fulminations of yore? Talk of critics gets him going: 'Theatre criticism has got to grow up beyond the pompous, sniping scribe who sits with his big fat arse on a paper crapping on this and this and deciding to lick this one's bum.' He is voluble, too, over his theory that One Man, in fact all art, is a manifestation of Compulsive Obsessive Syndrome. 'When Shakespeare wasn't writing he was manically doing property deals . . . If you wash your hands compulsively, they put you in a loony bin. If you're an actor doing the same performance every night, that's OK, you're an artist.'

But this is still far away from the splenetic explosions we love to hate from Berkoff. So, Roger Cook-like, I try to bait him by tossing him a few provocative journalistic curve balls in the shape of excerpts from previous reviews and articles and sit back to gauge his response.

A brilliant performer and a vivid writer, hoist with self-indulgence and a rather narrow range of interest. (Victoria Radin on 'Decadence',

Observer, 1983)

'The range of interest in Decadence was probably wider than any contemporary writer. It was deliberately focused on every form of indulgence among the seven deadly sins. Indulgence is good, you can reach the truth that way. Anyway, you mustn't rely on what a critic says as if it's the Torah: she may have had the curse that night or something.'

(Berkoff is) a portable East End Meyerhold. (Michael Billington on 'The Trial', Guardian, 1986)

'That's one of his better bons mots. Over the years of weary struggle he and I have come together: we're chained at the ankle like Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones. What Meyerhold did was try to take theatre away from its capitalistic origins with Stanislavsky, Chekhov and nice sofas. I originate from the East End, although I don't tawk lark Bob 'oskins. I'm not a professional East Ender like Michael Caine. I have the roots, they have the facade. And I am portable.'

I've seen him on television, he's hysterically funny. (Emo Phillips,

Independent, 1993)

'It's great to be funny, and it's always very satisfying to have had praise from artists in other mediums. That sort of thing helps to oil the wheels when I'm feeling unworthy, depressed, frustrated: it suggests that some part of the message must be getting through.'

(Berkoff's) writing burns with barely-controlled rage and obsessive sexual disgust. (Charles Spencer on 'Decadence', Evening Standard, 1983)

'Robert Burns? Oh, burns, I see. All writing should burn. You should write to set an audience on fire. If you cannot get it up, don't do it. It should entertain, hurt, move, coruscate. Hopefully, what burns also cauterises and cleanses.'

Over-the-top, stubborn, egotistical, excitable and possibly completely mad . . . (David Shannon, Today, 1986)

'Nobody thinks you're mad or over- the-top if you're among like-minded spirits. Antonin Artaud would probably find me immensely pleasant to have tea with, and I'm sure Spike Lee would too. These are people using demotic language of the street to express fundamental beliefs, giving art back to the people. When people have a problem with that, it suggests to me some deep-seated insecurity: there seems to be something in me or in my work that upsets them.'

. . . So are most geniuses.

(David Shannon, Today, 1986)

'I'm certainly no genius. All genius is is a commitment. If you keep working at something you can boil it down to genius.'

It becomes clear that Berkoff is too shrewd a player at the media game to be drawn into casual fury or overt egotism: he's also adroit at interpreting intended criticism as praise. But if one thing does rankle, it's the media label that's dogged him since he donned Doc Martens and the mantle of a playwright for the first time: the image of the raging, blank-verse bovver-boy from East.

'I'm not angry. John Osborne is angry. I'm Chaplinesque. My hands aren't for punching, they're for movement and grace. Before East I was a thin, delicate, neurotic aesthete, who taught mime, studied ballet and performed Poe. East was a parody and everyone took it literally. I'm an artiste.'

It's a convincing argument, but when I tell him I once reviewed his version of The Trial, his eyes hood and there's danger in the air. 'A bad review?' he asks. A mixed one, I mumble. The claws sheath and he's a rather weary, 56-year-old artiste again: 'Well, that's all right then.'

'One Man' is at the Assembly Rooms (venue 3), 50 George St (031-226 2428). 12noon to Aug 27, Sept 1-4, 12.30pm Aug 28-30

Additional research by Dominic Earle

(Photograph omitted)

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