As two of his rarely seen plays arrive at Trafalgar Studios, the iconoclastic playwright, actor and director talks to Neil Norman about the current state of British theatre and his refusal to compromise his aesthetic ideals.
Nearly two decades separate the writing of Lunch and The Bow of Ulysses although they deal with the same couple. Did you intend to return to their story when you first wrote Lunch in 1983?
Not a bit. In a way, I was riffing around the theme of a relationship. I had spent a lot of time writing and I had to get out of the cesspit of being an actor hanging by the phone waiting for a call from my agent. Lunch was my second play and I had just seen Zoo Story by Edward Albee, which is about a couple who meet on a park bench so I was just toying with that as an idea. Years later, I wrote The Bow of Ulysses and I realised that I was writing about the same people after a long relationship that was just held together by habit.
Given the nature of your language and approach to physical theatre, as well as the changes in performing style over the decades, how do you think contemporary actors will deal with your work?
Everybody makes their own decisions and you have to accept it to a certain extent. There is far more diversity on stage now and I think there is every chance that they can do it. I have a slight fear of the encroachment of naturalism and sloppy behaviour that passes for ‘reality’. We have lost the art of stylisation. Virtuosos such as Ian Richardson and Alec McCowen have a baroque style of acting that is becoming increasingly rare. However, there are some actors like Joseph Millson (currently in The Rover at Stratford ), Jonathan Hyde and Mark Strong who are daring, brave and audacious.
What is your opinion of the current state of theatremaking in the UK?
The work is pretty standard and much is sub-standard. A lot of praise is given to very mediocre work. Critics have lost their taste, hearing and eyesight. I hardly ever see new plays. They don’t have the audacity and daring that they used to. Compared with the work that came out of America in the 1960s by groups like La MaMa and the Living Theatre – whose production of The Brig at the Mermaid was unbelievable – they are so boringly, utterly conventional.
How much has your refusal to conform to theatrical convention and the theatre establishment affected your work and your ability to get plays produced?
In one respect it has made life difficult: it is next to impossible to get things on in the theatre. I approached the National with several fantastic projects and they didn’t even return my calls. That is the negative. The benefit is that it has forced me to put together shows myself, which I did by doing hack work for money as well as some good movies. I thought, ‘Sod ’em, I’ll do it myself.’ Paradoxically, I went to a West End producer with On the Waterfront after the National didn’t want it. I have just done a production of The Hairy Ape in Los Angeles and offered it to the National, but they were not interested at all. It displays a lack of vision and is a betrayal of its mandate to embrace innovative work.
Do you find the British theatre scene more conventional than in Europe or the US?
They don’t have workshops and studios here to encourage experimentation. This leads to a lack of deep creativity. Some of the best directors abroad are not invited here. People like Ariane Mnouchkine and Julie Taymor should be asked to speak and take workshops and direct. It is shameful and a loss to the British audience.
There is an increasing tendency towards transgender casting in the theatre. What is your view on this?
Transgender casting is a kind of literalism. It is the same with racial casting. This means that you can now only play Othello if you are black. There is something quite tainted about it. It is a form of racism in itself. Black actors have played Oberon and Macbeth with great success. The problem arises when it is a political choice rather than an aesthetic one. Sometimes it works well. It’s been going on since Sarah Bernhardt, after all. I did see the remarkable Richard II with Fiona Shaw. It was the best interpretation of the role I have ever seen.
Your theatre has always been driven by a combination of language and movement. Now that traditional frontiers separating theatre and dance are eroding, would you consider yourself a pioneer of this kind of theatre?
To a certain extent. When I started studying acting I was enamoured of actors who used movement to enhance the language. This was especially true of American actors. It was nourished by street theatre and dance. Michael Jackson’s moves all derive from street dancers, for example. One thing drives the other and if a director has not studied movement he is like a colour-blind person. He has to spend money on revolving sets and other technical nonsense to compensate. It deprives the actors of this experience because of their lack of imagination. Peter Brook understood it – particularly with the Marat/Sade. Complicite and Robert Lepage also understand it. But as soon as you moved to the Oxbridge School, you had directors who couldn’t move their arse from a chair.
CV: Steven Berkoff
Born: 1937, Stepney, London
Training: Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art; Ecole Internationale de Theatre Jacques LeCoq
Landmark Productions: Metamorphosis 1969, East (1975), Greek (1980), Decadence (1981), Sink the Belgrano! (1986), Salome (1988), On the Waterfront (2009)
Awards: Evening Standard Theatre Award for best comedy for Kvetch (1991), Total Theatre lifetime achievement award (1997), LA Weekly Theater Award for solo performance for Shakespeare’s Villains (2000)
Agents: Lee Morgan Management (film and TV); Suzanna Rosenthal (tour and booking agent)
The double bill of Lunch and The Bow of Ulysses runs at Trafalgar Studios 2, London, from October 6 to November 5