The Fest of Steven – Steven Berkoff

August 15, 1993

How terrible to be victimised. To be a pacific person, a classicist, an artist, and to be told to piss off by the simpering, bogus, corpulent slobs in that piece of turd, the theatrical establishment. To be kept out by these robbers, still holding their flabby guts in from five-course meals, licking up the arseholes of the nation’s wealth just to stage the same masturbatory rituals, giving nothing but ulcers and a bad attack of wind. And then to be misrepresented in the press, twisted into some sort of raving monster by the fruity tosspots from Cambridge quivering in their seats, turned into a white skinhead yob, the guy who does villains in movies, the maverick enfant terrible megalomaniac.

How terrible to be Steven Berkoff.

”He’ll be incredibly rude to you,” one source predicted. ”No, no, he’ll try to seduce you,” countered a second. But the man in the deserted theatre foyer seems disposed neither to rudeness nor seduction. How could he be? For that, he’d have to acknowledge I exist.

Hello, he bids the air eight inches to the right of me in the languid drawl of a Feydeau fop. Er, hello. Leading the way to a soulless cafeteria, he provides a weary exposition of the challenges of the one-man show, delivered in a surreal sing-song, occasionally rolling his eyes to heaven in a prayer for fortitude through this imbecilic ordeal. The Edinburgh Fringe promotional interview must indeed be a tedious ritual, but does he have to make it quite so apparent?

Interrupted in full-flow, Berkoff is not pleased. For a moment he shifts his gaze from that spot eight inches to my right, his face showing the sort of distracted, uncomprehending distaste generated by fruit flies and sudden, unpleasant odours. I asked him a question, he’s answering it: ”What do you want me to do? Leap across the table?”

It’s not a good start, but things are to get better. Before they get much, much worse.

While he’s continuing with the monologue, let’s take a look at him. A big man wearing what looks at first glance like top-to-toe leathers but turns out to be some black, sheeny synthetic. Jeans, puffa jacket, Nike cap, heavy belt, fancy snakeskin cowboy shoes: an intriguing ensemble, so butch it’s almost camp.

His face is tangerine-tanned and finer boned, less menacing, than those mephistophelean publicity shots suggest. Much has been made of the pointy ears and steely blue eyes, the identikit psycho stare that has made him such a popular Hollywood villain, but far more fascinating is the button of flesh, neither spot nor mole, dead centre of his forehead, like the superfluous snub on a moulded plastic toy. Assuming he wasn’t made in Hong Kong, might it perhaps cover something extra in the brain, a nodule the rest of us, for better or worse, do not possess? But what faculty could it control?

My money’s on the rage.

It comes out of nowhere, breathtaking bursts of foul-mouthed invective, a freak typhoon which devastates all in its path and then disappears. Is he raving? Well, yes, but is he raving mad? He certainly admits to a morbid and exaggerated response to stimuli. His radar screen is so stretched, sensitive to such fine vibrations, that sometimes, like the military, he’s in danger of firing an anti-nuclear missile when all he’s picking up is a flock of birds. But that’s all right. ”The nature of the artist is bordering on insanity and schizophrenia.”

One thing you learn quickly with Berkoff: there is no such thing as a short answer. No question is too small for rhetoric, epic soliloquies of Shakespearean rhythm and Rabelaisian imagery. You can’t not admire, but the effect of this verbal superabundance is a curious imprecision. Speech becomes a matter of texture. What he says is variously acute, absurd, and self-contradictory, but you might as well try to isolate a snowflake as take issue with a sentence in this avalanche of words. Objections are deflected with scorn or simply swept up and carried along by the force of his vocabulary.

Dialogue is not, you gather, his natural mode of discourse.

To accuse him of inconsistency is to miss the point. Berkoff is omnigenous. You can see it in the accents which switch, apparently unconsciously, from London demotic to Muggeridge-donnish to stagey-sonorous, to mid-Atlantic drawl. There’s even a slight lisp which comes and goes. The man is all things, even, he insists, woman, with a strong female streak in his character.

If this is true, she’s gone AWOL this afternoon. Never have I met anyone with less empathy, less instinct to please. It’s more than ”having no time to deal with bourgeois niceties”. After a while he starts to signal the end of anecdotes with an ingenuous, even sweet, little-boyish smile; the encounter is starting to approximate normal human contact. Open your mouth and the smile is whipped away. Offstage or on, the world is his audience, and the function of an audience is passivity in the dark. Anything else constitutes a challenge and is dealt with accordingly.

This generates two reactions. Firstly, you start to sympathise with the flabby, bourgeois, Oxbridge-educated, often-deserving targets of his wrath. And secondly, tentatively, you start to needle him.

Berkoff grew up the child of a broken home, living in one rat-infested room in the East End of London. He plays his background for pity, but it’s also a source of pride. Whatever the material privations, culturally he was privileged, a hybrid of his family’s Russian-Jewish heritage and the exacting code of the Stepney streets.

He was a bookish, sensitive youth but he soon learned he needed other talents to survive. No bourgeois niceties in Stepney. ”You were there on your own two feet, you had to assert who you were and sometimes you got clobbered for it. I was only picked on for a while. Then I did my own picking.”

Leaving school at 15, he began five years of ducking and diving, a succession of jobs which gave him ulcers through their shame, humiliation, ugliness and horror. ”Dreadful, dreadful, dreadful work.” How dreadful exactly? He twitches the question away a couple of times but eventually persistence is rewarded and he mumbles ”shop assistants, things like that.

”I should have been there, reading, studying, going to Cambridge, walking down stone-cool steps, along riverbanks, going to lectures …”

These aren’t his standard tones of foaming indignation. Even after 40 years the thought cuts him to the quick. And of course he’s right, he should have had the opportunity, but would he have been the same Steven Berkoff?

One metaphor crops up repeatedly in his speech, the image of the closed door. He feels shut out, from the seat of power, from cultural respectability, from the bourgeois establishment, from all those things he despises so vociferously and still seems to covet.

He has laid siege to the National Theatre since its inception, and bitterly resents its refusal to take him on board. On the odd occasion when the management has – only through cancellations, he says – offered him a stage, he has ”broken his balls” to accommodate them.

His great hero was Laurence Olivier, yet they never met. He auditioned for one of his productions but the casting director, ”some screaming queen”, cut him off half way through. Berkoff duly wrote to the grand old man of British theatre, a long letter: ”You’re my spiritual brother and this piece of crap that you have working for you has acted to bollock up the system whereby I might finally meet you.” Later he bumped into his adversary in the loo at the National. He becomes a Carry On caricature of mincing petulance: ”Sir Larry was very upset at your letter.”

He’s laughing now, as I am, but I’m not sure we’re agreed on the butt of the joke.

From the outside, it can be hard to take Berkoff’s grievances seriously. He is an extraordinary theatrical talent whose productions employ a range of skills both rare and precious on the UK stage. Despite his desire to epater le bourgeois, plays like West, Kvetch and Decadence (now remade as a movie starring Berkoff and Joan Collins), have made him big box-office in the London West End. And yet, for all the packed houses and industry awards, he feels under-appreciated, misunderstood.

He’s still seen as a punk yob, he says, even after the adaptations of Kafka and Aeschylus, his lyrical, sensuous version of Wilde’s Salome. So what if he plays blockbuster villains. ”Really I’m a lover. Really I’m a comedian. I’m an amazing comedian.”

While continuing to stare into vacancy most of the time, he’s started to vary the formula with protracted spells of eye contact. Then the face snaps shut. I’ve had an hour, which is twice what he intended. He’s walking away before I’ve shut my notebook.

But fate decrees differently. His next appointment has been sent away by a clueless stagehand (cue apocalyptic abuse of the state of London theatre). Now he wants to share a taxi. The driver stops short of his destination and Berkoff suggests we get out and walk. Strolling through Soho, he’s reminiscing about married life in Edinburgh in the Seventies. Is he married now? ”No, I’m looking for a wife.”

Turning down Archer Street, with its casinos and strip joints, he suggests a coffee, heading into a formica kiosk where olive-skinned punters cluster around the Italian satellite channel. He seems to feel the interview is terminated, but as we’re still talking about him it’s hard to be sure.

These days he lives in Docklands. A little bourgeois, surely? Oh no, you mustn’t misunderstand, his tirades against the bourgeois, all that stuff about crushing the vitality of the common man, are professional and political, not personal. He gets on very well with his neighbours.

I’m struck by the irresistible image of Berkoff as the Dr Jekyll of yuppie-land, attending bijou dinner parties behind the micro-blinds and then rising for another rabid day savaging middle class affectation. Watching him sipping cappuccino in his disco-tough clobber, I wonder if all that aggression isn’t really just a form of theatrical camp, a mannerism, a luvvie’s tic.

He doesn’t like this at all. Camp is gay, showy, overstated; exaggeration is satiric. The conversation is reaching a low ebb, he remarks, draining his cup abruptly. Outside, a buxom black woman in shorts and plunging tee shirt is bouncing on high heels in the doorway of Casa Rosa (London Amsterdam Live Shows).

”If you ever need a job go to Casa Rosa,” he says, not entirely pleasantly.

I don’t think they’d take me.

His gaze flickers momentarily from its usual resting place. ”No,” he murmurs. ”I don’t think so either.”

Like he says: really, he’s a comedian.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications