THEATRE BOOKS: Rambling woes
Sunday 21 April 1996
THE actor, director and playwright Steven Berkoff has had one of the most conspicuous careers in post-war British theatre. If you admire his striking visual productions, his mime skills, his verbal attack, and his cruel gift for parody - not to mention his defiant independence - then you must avoid this book.
If, however, you suspect Steven Berkoff is off his rocker, it will be a comforting read. Here you will find the unconsciously anti-semitic Alan Bennett pandering to illiterate yobs, the Donmar Warehouse "a squirty little theatre with high-priced glasses of cheap wine" and the late Peggy Ashcroft one of our "fave old character bags". Berkoff's worst enemies couldn't dream this up.
He presents his own life as it occurs to him. He has breakfast with his elderly Mum in Finsbury Park. He directs Coriolanus in New York. He is an unwelcome child in his Dad's tailor shop. He plays pin-ball. He directs his own play Greek. He learns to jive. He is evacuated to war-time Luton. He gets three months in a detention centre (for stealing a bike). He stands in the same room as Vivien Leigh ... no, summarising it makes it sound quite good.
Free associating means jotting down whatever comes into his head on the basis that - as he admits in one anecdote - "it must have impressed me for me to remember it." In 1959, Berkoff is understudy and ASM on a tour of The Amorous Prawn. The cast includes Evelyn Laye, Stanley Baxter and Derek Nimmo. Imagine what this must have meant to a young writer, getting into showbiz! "The company manager was a bit of a bullying turd, but apart from that it was OK and eventually we reached Brighton and all was well."
He frequently thinks out loud without thinking very clearly. As a child he had an urge to play the piano which was "inexplicable". He then explains it. He writes that Pip Donaghue is "now highly respected, but this actor is dynamite". Why the "but"? There is a heady moment when Berkoff and his wife travel to exotic lands and perform their favourite dish. Or so I thought. "My present spouse and I go to Europe or other more far-flung places and try to emulate some dish we particularly enjoyed and there is much excitement ..." One hundred and eighty-nine pages in, we come across a chapter headed "Emergence of `The Writer' ". We'd settle for the emergence of an editor.
As an autobiographer, Berkoff has a notable handicap. "We had shrieking giggles every night - I can't remember why ..." "I recall little of that event ..." "I can't remember much more about ..." "I can't recall anything until ..." "There seems to be a gap in my mind after this." If long-term memory presents difficulties, so too does his short-term one. He has a theory (on p136), that denying people things to which they have a right can turn out badly. He says his theory is "not very interesting". We know. We read it on p79.
Palestine, pogroms, Nicola Paget ("a sweet young thing"): there is no subject or event so great that it can prevent Berkoff seeing it from his own point of view. "What is [Edmund] Kean to me," he asks, "or I to Kean?" Answer: you are nothing to Kean. He died in 1833.
When Berkoff meditates on his lonely childhood in war-time Luton, he wonders whether his misery wasn't in some way connected, through telepathy or osmosis, with the children dying in the concentration camp at Treblinka. I'm sorry, but he does wonder.
The recurrent themes are loneliness, the need for father figures, the search for sanctuaries (breakfast with Mum, rehearsals, writing his journal) and, above all, rejection. "Rejection caused me grief and cold fury," he writes, "and that too may have its roots in the barking endless criticism from old Dad." One reason this book runs to 400 pages, is that, perhaps to even things up, it gathers up a lifetime of compliments paid to Berkoff.
Many well-known actors appear - such as Nicol Williamson, Jonathan Pryce, Brian Cox - usually when they were young and undiscovered. They remain undiscovered. "Oliver Reed was an extra then - he seemed a charming young man." His description of the women in his life may not entirely surprise the women who have slipped out of his life: "Many years passed and one female partner turned into another."
As well as being a lonely book, it is an incurious one. Berkoff mentions the adobe houses in Tennessee Williams' plays: "always adobe ... what the hell was that? It didn't matter." Matters enough to ask, that is, but not enough to find out. But that's free association for you. The reader does the work.
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