Steven Berkoff looks back to August 1969 and recalls the trials, the tribulations and the ultimate euphoria of putting on his one-man production of Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis at the Roundhouse in north London
Monday 02 August 1999
I discovered Kafka by chance in my late-teens and have been his willing ally and defender ever since. I felt he interpreted me, and I wished to interpret him since he seemed to strike at the very fabric of what is our humanity stripped bare. After reading Kafka, everything had to stand comparison, yet little could.
It was the terribly bleak observations that he made about us and the biting truths we were forced to swallow, since in all of us there is a little of the Gregor Samsa beetle, or Joseph K, the man of guilt. Also, Metamorphosis contained the prime requisite for my kind of drama: it was strangely beautiful, frightening and, of course, surreal. The barking at the social order by our angry men seemed to be so dated and irrelevant to me at the time.
But how to stage Metamorphosis was a real task, and I made several versions where we could only see the beetle via the family. How could we show the metamorphosis of a young man turning into this monster creature within the limitations of the theatre? I imagined, at the most, a shadow created by the family as they raised their arms in horror that "accidentally" resembled an insect. I had forgotten about imagination.
However, I had been immersed in mime and this was going to underscore the piece. In mime we are always made to have the courage to stimulate the audience's imagination, hoping they will see what we only suggest. The brain of a spectator is not only like a hungry animal, it is a playful child that will seize upon the suggestion of a thing and eagerly fill in the rest. It is in the "filling in" that the audience becomes almost a participant. They are engaged, their imagination is almost involuntarily switched on. Their perceptions are in full demand. They must believe. Or at least believe in the symbol, the struggle to create the insect.
I heard at that time of a student production at Oxford directed by John Abulafia and, with great curiosity, I dashed up to see it and was astounded by the fact that it is indeed true, that if you enact something non-human, animalistic, the conviction in the actor's feeling alone will enable the audience to share the idea with you.
It was almost painfully simple, as are all great ideas. The actor merely sat behind a large box, his arms criss-crossed, giving the impression of limbs jutting from his shoulders, or even the sad effects of thalidomide. It completely answered the question for me.
I wished to go further, and had to, since I wanted to create the entire creature and have the family be part of that experience. I crawled on the floor, legs spread out behind me like broken limbs, arms at a 45-degree angle to the floor or criss-crossed. I wished to see Gregor climb his walls and so we created a scaffolding that the creature could climb and, as it were, hang from the ceiling.
As one problem was solved or even attempted, another would develop from it, and soon a whole piece of theatre organically linked to movement, text and set was forming and it was a time full of trepidation and excitement. The family expressed their movement to the steady tick of the metronome as they slept, walked or ate, thus demonstrating the daily ritual of their predictable lives and their ticking clock neatly fell into step with the insect's movements as if it was born out of the misery of the family's routine: the family members were like dislocated bits of the insect.
It gradually seemed to click into place. At first I was ruled by fear... fear of the most abject failure, which held me back for a while, like: dare I rent the theatre and what if the time came and I couldn't do it... what then? But the mantra I always gave myself was that I wouldn't die! And that in four weeks' time the world would still be there and probably me with it.
Decisions for me in those days were a matter of life and death. My wife, designer and painter Alison Minto, helped me to conceive the set and Martin Beaton, an architect ally, made a model. However, I would not be able to try it out until the day the set was up, and the following day would be the performance! Would I be able to do the climbing?
The rest of the play had miraculously come together, since we had found a key to the staging - an odd mixture of mime and kabuki - and yet the language was spoken with the utmost realism. I was indeed fortunate in my cast since each was perfect for their role. George Little, Jeanie James, Petra Markham, and Chris Muncke as the leader of the clerks and the lodger. (Chris was a student of mine when I taught at drama school.)
After a rather nervous try-out at Lamda early in the year, we became bold and decided to rent the Roundhouse. So confident were we after the Lamda experience and the positive comments from the audience, we were sure that we could achieve just double the Lamda audience to break even. Martin Beaton and I went to a money-lender in Leicester Square and borrowed the capital at an interest rate of 49 per cent. We were that convinced that after a month we would be able to pay it all back. We were invincible.
George Hoskins, the then administrator, used to run the egg- marketing board and had been recommended to Arnold Wesker by Harold Wilson. Wesker's amazing vision had got the whole Roundhouse thing going, although by then he had slipped out and George was commander-in-chief. He had allocated a three-week stint to us in the beginning of July, an almost dead-zone for starting a new show. The poster went up, conceived by Alison and myself and in suitably Gothic Sixties style, but plastered right over the central panel of the building. No one could have been more proud to see it wrapped round the curve of the Roundhouse.
Just to make life a little more difficult, I performed as a curtain- raiser an adaptation of Kafka's In the Penal Colony, a sweaty tour de force written with Kafka's usual, almost supernatural imagination for things not of this world, such as an execution machine which inscribes your sentence on to your body.
Bookings were slow since the sunshine is a great deterrent to the theatre, and we waited patiently. One by one the reviews came out and they were positive to a man. We could breathe again, and no one was more exultant and relieved than me. We were occupying the great and tremendous Roundhouse where, just a few weeks earlier, the Living Theatre had been frightening the life out of the audience with their politicised version of Frankenstein. On the Sunday, the Rolling Stones were doing their gig since Sunday was rock'n'roll night.
We ambled along until Harold Hobson's Sunday Times review came out, unfortunately missing the first Sunday. Even so, The Observer was enthusiastic, with good, quotable chunks. On the last Sunday, with just a week to go, Hobson's piece was like reading one's review by flashes of lightning. I have never received one quite like it, and was almost embarrassed by riches. He described the beetle leaving its room and approaching the audience as an effect as terrifying as Irving's might have been in The Bells when performing a particular piece. A giant picture accompanied the review. From then on we were sold out, practically the only London theatre to be so during a heatwave.
We finished in euphoria and were glad to get to the end since the two shows daily were exhausting for a virtual theatrical novice. We returned in 1974 to perform Kafka's The Trial and in 1980 with Hamlet.
The Roundhouse, like its name, had no edges or boundaries and seemed to accept you as long as you had no boundaries either. A temple where you could worship whatever god you wished and offer what sacrifices you will... as long, mind you, as they were metaphorically bloody. I recall many good nights there seeing Joe Chaiken's Open Theatre, as well as the Living Theatre, though sadly past their stunning best. When, in later years, the Roundhouse was "cleaned up", it seemed to lose its character and, becoming more respectable, its aura seemed to go. I liked it when it was whorish, welcomed you with open arms and you could visit the long bar whether you were seeing a show or not, so the place was always buzzing.
Last week I returned for the first time in many years to see De La Guarda. A spectacle inspired by Meyerhold and Artaud. The building was alive again. It was beaming. It was shocking! Sacrifices were once again being offered.
Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigourfilm
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