LET'S GET PHYSICAL
STEVEN BERKOFF talks to James Rampton
Saturday 09 August 1997
He admits as much himself. "My method is to try to take things further than most," he affirms. "I'm fascinated by the swarming pits of humanity. One of the first things I do when I visit a city is seek out its slums. I was in South Africa a few weeks ago, and I went straight to Soweto. When you go further, you tend to probe deeper and therefore you tell more."
The latest vehicle for his probing is Massage, an in-depth examination of the sex industry. For its British premiere in Edinburgh, Berkoff is playing the lead - a woman. "I felt the stylisation of having a male enacting a female would give the play a distancing effect. Having a woman talking about sexual equipment might be too voyeuristic. The audience could get a vicarious pornographic thrill out of it. With a male in the role, we separate ourselves from sexual attraction and can view the female with objectivity."
Massage looks set to rub the establishment up the wrong way - something of a Berkoff speciality. We are facing each other over a steaming coffee- pot in his minimalist flat, which commands a marvellous view of the River Thames. He is looking tired but fit from a world tour of Coriolanus.
Perched on a seat beside a leather-bound "Kvetch Pad" and a copy of his beloved Kafka, he is dressed all in black, from his woolly hat with an Anti-Apartheid logo to his dinky Far Eastern slip-ons. Engaging you with his sparkling, sometimes scary eyes, he is a livewire presence, passionately hammering the air of wagging a finger to make a point.
He explains why he has often ended up an outsider. "I've found that taking steps in my own direction might have put me beyond the pale. There has always been a cautionary attitude from the establishment to those who don't fit into the Procrustean bed of their own ideology. The radical, the thinker who works in symbols, is always a threat because you don't know what tricks he can draw out of his subconscious. That could become threatening to people whose work is more quotidian."
A man with a keen awareness of his own worth, Berkoff knows that adopting this counter-culture attitude has not always won him friends and influence in Britain. But he remains unrepentent. "There's little work for me here," he sighs. "I resent the fact that taxpayers' money is not expressing the full spectrum of the society that we live in. People have little opportunity to see me in their tax-subsidised theatres."
Once it gets into a canter, a Berkoff hobby-horse is well-nigh impossible to halt. "I despair of most established theatre," he says, sounding almost anguished. "It's simplistic and dated. They keep turning to Chekhov like a baby running back to mamma's tit. They might dip an anxious toe into Brechtian waters, but then they come running back to mamma and the 331st revival of The Cherry Orchard. It's safe territory, and it panders to directors' love of pornographic naturalism."
He expands on his abhorrence of naturalism. "Realistic acting is often just voyeuristic," he declaims. "The audience observes the actor going through bourgeois tricks without any involvement except prurient curiosity."
With such forthright views, Berkoff has had his run-ins with the critics. Last year, one newspaper sniped that: "Tenderness, irony, subtlety and even common human sympathy are alien territory to Berkoff... His narcissism is frightening." He came to blows with another reviewer on a well-reported occasion which he now dismisses as "a very minor piece of braggadocio on my part. Since then, the critic has felt flattered that I wanted to kill him," he adds, with a flash of humour.
"When you're trying to experiment with multi-layered theatre," he carries on, "some unaware critics can be dismissive or hostile. Many of them are so focused on the language and its meaning that they have not developed any perception of what's actually going on."
None of this has distracted Berkoff from his conviction about his own place in theatrical history. "East, my first original play, was written in 1975, and it is still performed all over the world," he argues. "I hope my plays will survive because they are not wedded to a certain time. The themes I write about are eternal. I've attempted to work with stylisation in direction and in language; consequently, it can never really be naturalistic or caught in a time-warp."
Even though he celebrated his 60th birthday last Sunday, Berkoff shows no sign of slowing down. He counts scuba-diving among his hobbies and is currently learning to rollerblade and dance the samba.
Retaining the sort of iconoclastic energy you'd normally associate with a teenager (is he the oldest enfant terrible in town?), Berkoff reckons that "My passion has not dimmed, although I'm now approaching an ancient age. I'm happy that I've had 15 years more than Oscar Wilde and also 20 years more than Edgar Allan Poe. I keep thinking, `When am I going to grow up?' Fortunately, I don't see any sign of that taking place."
`Massage' is at The Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh (0131-226 2428) 19 to 30 Aug
1937: Born into a deprived Jewish East End background, the son of a tailor. Went to the same school as Harold Pinter (Hackney Downs). After a spell in a detention centre, he got into drama school, aged 21
1960s: Studied mime with the French guru Jacques Lecoq. Created The London Theatre Group to produce his own plays, starting with two Kafka adaptations: In the Penal Colony (1968), and Metamorphosis (1969)
1970s: A fecund period. In the cinema, he appeared in A Clockwork Orange (1971), Nicholas and Alexandra (1971), and Barry Lyndon (1975). For the theatre, he was creator, adaptor, performer or director of: Macbeth (1970), Agamemnon (1971), Zoo Story (1973), The Trial (1973), The Fall of the House of Usher (1974), East (1975), and Greek (1979)
1980s: Theatrical success continued with: Hamlet (1980), Decadence (1981), West (1983), Sink the Belgrano! (1986) Kvetch (1986), Coriolanus (1988) and Salome (1988). Also played film villains in Octopussy (1983), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Rambo (1985), Under the Cherry Moon (1986) and The Krays (1990)
1990s: Theatre productions included: Brighton Beach Scumbags (1991), One Man (1993), Richard II (1994), Sturm und Drang (1994), and Massage (1997). His autobiography, Free Association, was published last year
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