Steven Berkoff


“I sick up my plays. I vomit them. I absorb all the horror of this world and regurgitate it. Theatre can only be the product of your obsession. Obsessions are always dangerous. If I wasn’t obsessive about the theatre, I could be obsessive about bombs or killing people… Theatres shouldn’t be like museums – a theatre of boredom ! That’s like eating when you’re not hungry. It should be a playground – exciting, dynamic, a high-voltage cabaret, a savage battleground of emotions and ideas, spilling blood… Theatre for me has to be anti-establishment. Sexual, sensual, working on the most tribal, primitive, levels. The actors in my plays are warriors. I want the audience to feel totally blasted.”

It’s a typically Berkoff-ian setting: a miserable London day, full of miserable people, cheap pub laughter in our ears. I’m interviewing Steven Berkoff for the second time in my life and, as the one-man audience for this one-man performance, I’m predictably blasted.

His tenacious, greedy energy, brutal intelligence, the gleam of excitable, exaggerated, madness in his hard, blue eyes are all unchanged. He still seems (to me) to be acting up, if not over playing his idea of Steven Berkoff – this raving combination of Rasputin manias, Hitler vision, and Alf Garnett humour. At times it seems nearly every adjective or adverb should be in in italics or, even worse, in CAPITALS. 

It still seems very ‘actorly’. Berkoff will deny it but he really isn’t this ogre of obsession. He likes to dazzle, to startle, to bully, with this impression of brilliance. The performance itself is brilliant. He uses it to stand out, just as I use it to get you reading this interview.

Berkoff imposes himself on any situation he chooses using his commanding physique: the fish-eyed stare, Vulcan ears, that strange Cyclops-spot on his forehead, which follows and intimidates like a Dalek’s arm (and which his interviewers always avoid asking about).

The menacing voice, ruthless energy, distracted twitching, and hammy passion act as smokescreens for the moments when he relaxes or reveals anything of himself. He disapproves of flippancy or interruption, dislikes casual camaraderie, preferring instead to offer you his cold dislike rather than occasional glimpses of gentleness, warmth, sensitivity, or shyness.

But underneath he is still very much the modern liberal, the actor, and hippy – with his pleas for street theatre, love, and drama. He will never advocate violence.

His performance is uncontainable, so in return I offer him my performance as Jim Shelley: impudent interviewer, expert sceptic, Devil’s Advocate.

Berkoff is shocked.

“You can’t attack me, no ! You can’t attack someone in an interview, God!”

The mere suggestion incites a swift, relishable, tirade.

“It is iniquitous, an unjust imposition, that the health and success of this play should be helped or damaged by reviewers. I shouldn’t be reviewed at all ! It’s intolerable. This has strangulated the potential arrival of the avant- garde in theatre which is now the most laggard, dull, banal, art-form. Theatre should be something hideous and bloody and outrageous. Dangerous words, dangerous acting. Daring, confrontational, physical.”

At this point it seems fair to ask: how did you get this way ?

“My father was artistic, yes: he was a tailor. It was my mother who made a sort of Frankenstein out of me. She fed me this disgust and outrage at England’s stupidity, its unimaginative, ugly, greyness until I thought it was my duty to hack my way out of this grey sloth with a bloody axe. She spiced this great stewof rebelliousness and anger in me. Then when I was young, I saw dangerous performances from Olivier, bravura and magic from Schofield and McCowan. I saw these plays from Osbourne et cetera – these two-act plays, with tables (he winces) and doors (he spits) and said: ‘I want to haunt these things. Do things that are hallucinogenic. Unimaginable feats. An energy that will sicken you… I never believed in the isolation of Beckett, no. My mentors were Houdini and Marcel Marceau and Chaplin, who unified all the elements of the arts: pathos and comedy and expression and pain. My first impression of theatre was of tightrope walkers, magic acts, extraordinary clowns. A theatre that uses imagination, mime, movement, music, action, humour, energy. The whole power of the body should be in your work. Your sexual, sensual, drive is part of your rebelliousness.”

Do you ever forget yourself on stage ?

“Sometimes. I see stage as a forum for primal experience, a big emotional onslaught, an utterance from the gut. Where the experience comes from the pit of your being. I don’t think I ever forget my own presence, no. You always have one eye on it. (His third eye ?) When I write it’s total emotional excavation.”

Berkoff clearly has done more than anyone in recent years in putting the threat into theatre, the power into performance. We meet as his play ‘Greek’ returns to the London stage after nine years, after he has directed Roman Polanski in his adaptation of Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ (in Paris), and just before the publication of a new book ‘America’ (about his film experiences in Mexico and Los Angeles).

Born in Stepney, to working-class parents and Russian grandparents, Berkoff started drama at the age of 21 and at 27 studied mime at the Ecole Jacques Le Coq in Paris. With his own company, his plays ‘Decadence’, ‘East’, ‘West’ and his numerous adaptations of Kafka, Poe, and Shakespeare have been seen in eighteen countries including Israel, Japan, Malta and Australia, with notable successes in Los Angeles and Germany.

‘Greek’ is essential/familiar Berkoff with his usual invigorating balance of Terror, Absurdity, Pain, Speed: part ‘A Clockwork Orange’, part ‘Steptoe & Son’, ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’ and Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland.’

‘Greek’ viciously satirises all the English classes’ crassness: the common violence, cheap stupidity of the working-class and their Silk Cut & ‘Sun’ lifestyle of yobs, slags, caffs, football, and boozers versus the energetic New Greed, snobbery, and repression of the New Thatcherites.

‘Greek’ is a highly contemporary re-telling of the Oedipus myth told with brutally funny bitterness, grotesque pathos, inspired, excitement and Berkoff’s often erratic invention, as he offers a modern London parallel to the plague made up of bombings, fighting, AIDS, hooliganism, and class war.

His glorious, gushing, speeches reveal how the plague’s roots are in man’s ‘lovelessness and repression’ and show ‘how salvation lies in love’.

Berkoff’s speed-slang is pitched perfectly between Beckett and Garnett while Bruce Payne is outstanding as tomorrow’s hero: a mix of Malcolm McDowell and Jim Davidson.

“I wrote it in 1979. It’s untouched, of course. It was the emergence of football riots and herpes, people afraid to stroke each other’s groins lest new laws against the spreading of the Plague outlaw them. It’s about the emotional, mental, plague of primitive man. His search for more and more material comforts which is polluting the whole earth.”

More than anything, ‘Greek’ is a savage condemnation of England’s mental and physical hooliganism, its repression and restrictions, with its text and imagery suggesting we have arrived at ‘A Clockwork Orange’ society with the classes totally divided. Berkoff launched into a blazing assault against the “conditioning of shitty architecture”, “scumhole pubs”, and “yobbo licensing laws that are alienating and dividing the classes.”

“I think it is evil to ban children from pubs !” he scowls. “It is totally unnatural to have a male gathering which is not tempered by the presence of the female or the child. This accelerates male hostility and he explodes. The child is separated from the parent and banned from learning agreeable and sociable habits, alienated from the role model. It makes the child regard the adult as something sinister and exotic. What is so horrible about a child watching his father drink ? Is it better that a child watches his drunken father come home from the pub ? Then when they go to Europe, they go insane because they haven’t been governed by humane laws. We are contaminating the Europeans. Can you imagine the pain, the sensual deprivation, the brutalisation, that was caused to the people of Dusseldorf last month ? They are like animals, total fucking animals.”

Berkoff’s travels – to Los Angeles, Paris, Yugoslavia, even Australia – have enlightened him sufficiently to supply the many reasons for ‘the English Disease.’

“Killing off coffee has killed off our society ! The cafe society is the salvation of our society. The cafe abroad is the social melting pot, allows the tension and strain to be released by being able to merge, with all the generations. People have to be able to leave their isolation and mix. So they have to go to the pub, run by these brewers who are the biggest, laziest, most parasitical, bastards around. Here I am forced to get drunk by the nature of a pub that refuses to serve decent coffee that is sold all over the world. I have to get drunk because I can only drink beer and I get quite tiddly after a tiny amount.”

He goes on. Boy, does he go on…

“The restriction and repression of English society is such that you need a licence to do street theatre ! The fucking trains finish early. At eleven o’clock every night this deluge, this swamp of people like a great volcano of horror emerges from cinemas, from theatres. That’s when the pubs should stay open… People should be meeting, communicating. People need somewhere to love each other, talk to each other. The one cultural outlet is the bloody pub. So then they spew up artificial lifestyles like McDonalds, the most sterile and hostile environments – a sinister, evil force, like a cancer… Plastic tables, polysytrene cups. Everything is smashable, disposable, so you do not want to protect everything. Nothing is worth saving. It’s the polystyrene generation: fast food and telly. It’s partly because the two World Wars have broken down their natural, wholesome, eating habits. They’ve become poor, mean, in spirit: supermarket food, packet food.”

No surprise then that he’s only in England four or five months of the year.

“Because it’s my language. There’s still a creative, intelligent, 1% that’s fighting back. That’s the 1% that comes to my plays.”

Much of Berkoff’s time in LA has been spent building up an impressive string of cameo villains in such largely unimpressive films as ‘Revolution’, ‘Absolute Beginners’, ‘Under The Cherry Moon’, ‘McVicar’, and ‘Octopussy.’ (Earlier in his career there was a part in ‘The Passenger’ and, significantly, he played a policeman in ‘A Clockwork Orange’.)

Berkoff maintains that working in film awards him the time and money to devote to his own work.

His most recent roles in ‘Rambo’ and ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ have helped to provide not only the material for essays in his new book ‘America’ but also a fair degree of personal comfort.

Berkoff’s London retreat is a beautiful, spacious, house in Docklands, nestling down past dirty, disused, streets at the back of Whitechapel, where dodgy-looking Rollers coast past boarded-up council estates, the muddy Thames laps at vast windows which overlook a vast panorama of rotting warehouses, broken cranes, grey waste.

Looking around at the grand piano, the packed bookshelves, and designer furniture, it seems very comfortable.

“I never feel cosy, no. Never cosy !” Berkoff bristles at the very suggestion. “It’s not a career.”

‘America’ is a collection of rather disappointing poetry and a handful of travel observation essays – on Johnny Ray, Mexican fisherman in Acapulco, Hollywood rollerskaters (which contrast the street theatre cafes of Mexico and Los Angeles) to the ‘dank and foetid’ pubs of Berkoff’s native East End.

He continues to wonder what the English have against enjoyment, whilst in America it is a sin not to have enjoyment.

“LA is real, yes. People behave normally ! Bump into someone, they say ‘Pardon me !’ Not ‘oo you pushin’?!’ It’s fairly crazy but you knock into big guys and they have a verbal articulacy they lack here.”

Even in his essays dealing with his experiences filming ‘Rambo’ and ‘Beverly Hills Cop’, Berkoff is still cautious about revealing anything of himself.

Although he does concede to a slight nervousness in working with Murphy and paranoia with Stallone, he never really deals with the effect of feeling as if he’d “gone through the screen and come out at the other side.”

He prefers a few more quick cameos to anecdotes.

“I’m not nervous, nah, not really. They’re working people, friendly and sociable, worked their way up, no airs and graces. They are like images coming through the screen, sure. They have the same worries as you do, only on a bigger scale. Sly can’t remember his lines. He sits up nights going: ‘uh, the actin’s not so good, guys.’ And they’re going: ‘hey Sly, the actin’s fuckin’ marvellous man, fuckin’ great. Whaddya talkin’ ’bout ?! Fuckin’ great. Come on!’ They do this all night !”

Push Berkoff into talking about himself or his youth, and the savage speech becomes evidently more reluctant.

I suggest that Berkoff’s despised Garnett characters conceal a certain fondness.

“There might be a bit of my parents in them yeah, in ‘West’. They are dead now, yes. They saw my early plays – not the spunkier London plays, which are just one aspect of investigating the past. I’m closer in spirit to Poe and Kafka than my own plays in a way.

“The Alf-type character is my symbol for Mr Everyman in England – a violent Charlie Chaplin, a passionate articulator of the human disease and the violence of the play which stems from sensual and sensory deprivation, which causes sexual atrophy and the withering of sensual appetites. I think that a person who doesn’t have sexual love will be a violent person. Hence, a loveless being’s source of stimulus becomes alcohol.”

Did you grow up around such people ?

“Yes. Nowadays Cockneys are more fascistic. Thatcherism is fascistic-thinking. I think anything that places a criteria on its market value is fascistic. Cockneys don’t really have this shorthand I give them anymore. I wrote a bit when I was young, yeah. Action writing.”

What was it like ?

“Good ! I used to go into the booth in HMV and play ‘Music Concrete’ which was in the Fifties. Very abstract, just voices, very futuristic… Just used to write whatever came into my head. I wanted to be a priest, strongman, philosopher, writer.”

Berkoff ties his great bullying energy to his background.

“Energy comes from frustration, from deprivation, from youth. You hold back and it builds up until it becomes a flood. Purging your emotions opens and releases enormous funds of energy until you almost become a medium for incredible awesome powers that people cannot believe ! You get rid of the luggage, the ego, and the emotional poison, so you can talk for ten hours at a time. I was never a bully, no ! No ! I was bullied at school. I was medium-sized, that’s all. Maybe obsessional as a director, yes. Not a dictator. I play it: it’s a game. The only way you can create is through joy. I don’t care about power, no. I plummeted onto the street when I was 13, 14. You couldn’t con people through what you had because you didn’t have anything, so you used wit or courage. Gives you simplistic, hard-cut values, I came from that hard school.”

My role as impudent interviewer determines that I have to ask Berkoff about the way he uses his physique, his forehead, to intimidate.

“What ?! You mean this mole?!” he splutters.

Berkoff is shocked but soon re-considers.

“Probably I have some kind of third-eye power. I don’t intimidate. I’m compassionate. Compassion is the highest form of human intelligence, according to Aristotle. Sometimes you tap into certain things, unleash yourself. I find myself speaking like other people. I have to shake them off.”

Last time, you told me you “knew Franz Kafka personally”, that you were “married to Kafka”, that you “became Franz Kafka”. That you were Franz Kafka.

“I had absorbed him so much, I started to think like Kafka. Like you tune into a ghost’s signal, his radio-waves. I’ve felt that before. Beep and you’re in tune. He paralleled exactly my way of thinking before I got out of that morbid introspection, horrible isolation. So much of my time had been spent worrying over his letters, diaries, I suddenly knew exactly how he wrote the bloody ‘Metamorphosis’, only because of the osmosis that I had. The bastard takes a line and works backwards: his first lines are the best lines in every play.”

He gives me a quick cameo, a swift recital.

“Same way I wrote ‘Greek’, doodling on a plane, not an idea in my head.”

You talk about hearing “a drumming in your head”…

“Another rhythm really. I try and concentrate but something’s drumming, an obsessional thought. I’m at a party and zing ! This thought creeps in, as if it feeds on blood, wants to get you at your ripest ! Keep it down ! Get back ! Try and stamp on it, but you can’t.”

Do you ever feel you’re slightly touched, Steven ?

“A bit loony ? Yes, probably, more so in the past. I’ve got over a lot of that. I do a lot of self-analysis. I don’t go to a shrink, no. I write down my dreams, ponder what they mean, talk to someone about them. I’m always on the verge of going to see a shrink – the pain gets so acute I think ‘I’ve gotta go’. And then the phone rings, I haven’t got time. All this theatrical self-investigation is ego-poisoning. ‘Oh, oh, what’s happening to me ?’ It’s all self. You’ve got to leap over that. I found myself and liberation through the purity and honesty of what I was trying to say in my work. When I was an actor, a hired hand, I had a lot of poison and insanity and ambition to be some scumbag on the screen who jerks off in front of his audience and is useless.”

You don’t think you are acting up to distract from your shyness ?

“No ! Nah ! Sometimes you get worked up into it. People expect things, expect something outrageous, bizarre. You create a cover for innate shyness and insecurity, so it looks like you’re anti-shy. Once I had to do a lecture at the NFT, I was so terrified I did forty-five minutes of pure insanity, just totally out of control, very funny. Rarely happens these days. Just for lectures. I get terrified.”

Berkoff’s future is suitably frenetic. He’ll be playing Hitler in the TV version of World War II, ‘War Remembrance.’ The BBC is showing ‘Metamorphosis’ in the autumn. He’ll soon be directing Mikhail Baryshnikov in the New York production of ‘Metamorphosis’ and he has “a few books” coming out.

“One book on Brazil which I wrote while I was doing a dodgy film there, ‘The Prisoner of Rio’, a book about my tours and investigations when I played Hamlet. Maybe a new play after ‘Greek.’ I want ‘Greek’ to run, to emerge as the play of its time, of the decade, which it is. The possibility of filming my plays is still ticking over. Film isn’t a very literate business. They’re terrified of language…As long as you’ve got a few car chases. Take my word though, brilliant films will be made.”

Do you know why you keep doing all these things ?

“I want to keep the fire going. I haven’t done anything yet. I’m still scratching at the surface. The more you do, the more fire you have. Keep the torch burning ! That’s really the obsession.”

This fire and obsession means his performance as Steven Berkoff is his best yet.