In 1973 Steven Berkoff wrote the manifesto for his company, The London Theatre Group, and declared that its aim was to:
Explore drama in the most vital way imaginable, to perform at the height of powers with all available means: that is through spoken word, gesture, mime and music. Sometimes the emphasis on one, sometimes on the other.
Since 1969, when he staged his first play Metamorphosis at the Roundhouse, a version of Franz Kafka’s story about a salesman who wakes up one morning to discover that he has been changed into a giant insect, Berkoff has remained loyal to his own manifesto. That is both the strength and the weakness of the actor turned director and playwright, who was born in London’s East End in 1937, the son of a tailor, and who went on to become a tailor of words and the purveyor of some of the most arresting and visceral theatre of the late 20th century.
Pieces such as Metamorphosis and 1975’s East – his fizzingly alive and brilliantly scabby homage to the East End of his youth – broke the mould of British theatre. It created an oeuvre in opposition to the dominant theatre of the 1960s and 1970s which sprouted in the wake of the success of John Osborne’s kitchen-sink realist drama, Look Back in Anger. Berkoff once described such plays as “simply a mass of dialogue, with no resonances of inner life, where the actors hurled situational chat at each other.”
Nobody could accuse Berkoff’s plays – with their punchy physicality and verbal razzle-dazzle – as lacking life. They often make you sit further back in your seat (and over the years have sometimes even made you long for a volume control) as Berkoff and his characters have ranted and raved in plays from Greek (1980) through Decadence (1981) and Kvetch (1986) to later and often less successful works such as The Secret Love Life of Ophelia (2001) and Sit and Shiver (2006). Now 82, he is still at it: his latest play Harvey premieres at the London fringe in 2019 exploring the life and times of disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.
Undoubtedly, Berkoff has created a distinctive body of work which draws on Brecht’s Epic Theatre, Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty and most particularly the training he received at the L’Ecole International de Theatre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. This was 20 years before another generation of theatre-makers, led by Complicitè’s Simon McBurney amongst others, made the pilgrimage there. A Berkoff production is instantly identifiable from its aesthetic – in which loamy language collides with stylised movement – and which is as recognisable as Pinter’s menacing pauses.
Berkoff may revel in seeing himself as a theatre outsider and sometimes be laughed at by some in British theatre for his bad-boy posturing. He has had a successful career in acting, playing a number of Hollywood villains, beginning with the Bond movie Octopussy in 1983, perhaps not a career move likely to endear him to the theatre establishment. The quality of his output has been variable; there have been times in later years when his productions have sometimes looked like a parody of what we might mean by ‘Berkoffian’.
But what should not be underestimated is his impact on British theatre during the 20-year period that was his heyday, and his influence on a subsequent generation of theatre-makers which endures right up to the present day. That’s not only because his plays are studied in schools, but also because the vitality and raw poetic and physical energy of the plays continues to speak to a younger generation. Berkoff has always made theatre, not drama, and he has always done it with a flourish. For over 50 years Berkoff has been one of the most regularly produced playwrights on the Edinburgh Fringe, a breeding ground for future UK talent.
In his book Changing Stages, Richard Eyre, the former artistic director of the National Theatre (under whose auspices Berkoff staged his slow-motion Salome in 1989, one of the few occasions he has worked at the NT) identifies Berkoff as “the last of the Victorian actor-managers.” The fact that Berkoff at the height of his career often wrote, directed and starred in his own productions, might hint at this. But in many ways it is more helpful to see him as an auteur, long before the influence of Europe became more pronounced on British theatre and the term more widely used in a theatrical context.
If Berkoff’s practice has remained largely static, that is not to underestimate the long tail of his influence, not just on those making physical theatre but also on playwrights. Mark Ravenhill’s first play, written as a student, was strongly influenced by East. Harry Gibson, who adapted Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting for the stage with enormous success, has cited Berkoff as a major influence, and Berkoff’s sweaty poetics are identifiable in the work of Jez Butterworth, most particularly in Mojo and Jerusalem.
As the director Dominic Dromgoole has observed:
Throughout the 1980s he ran counter to the prevailing political dreariness, and was scorned for his innocence and naivety, but he midwifed a lot of the richer drama that was to follow.
He also paved the way for a significant number of physical and visual theatre-makers, from Frantic Assembly to newcomers such as RashDash, by holding the door open and suggesting that in British theatre it was possible to have a career in which text was not primary but simply one element of a much more ‘total theatre’ approach.
Look at any number of guides to playwrights of the last 50 years and Berkoff barely merits a mention in most of them. But he may have the last laugh. As Dromgoole wrote in The Full Room:
His splendid isolation tends to make him appear to be an island shut off from the rest of culture. Far from it. In terms of what has followed his example (although many wouldn’t credit it), he is a waterfall.
One who is still flowing on as turbulently as ever.