The Ego has Landed

first_imgTrue confidence, surely, is the ability to dismiss half of your own career as “parasitic” and “imposing” – only an actor, director and playwright such as Steven Berkoff could do such a thing without raising any eyebrows, and this did indeed seem to be his agenda when he spoke at the English faculty on 20 May. Berkoff laments the “castration of the actor” by theatre directors, proclaiming the latter to be expensive and excessive; have we met a professional theatre practitioner with genuine humility, or is this a brilliantly sophisticated placing of his own work above and outside of even his own profession? Steven Berkoff studied drama in London and Paris and performed modest roles with repertory companies before forming the London Theatre Group in 1968. His first original play, East, was staged in 1975 at the Edinburgh festival, followed by an array of varied works including West, Decadence, Greek, Kvetch, Acapulco and Brighton Beach Scumbags, all written in his indulgent, aggressive, yet cerebral style . As a director, Berkoff has toured tens of productions such as Kafka’s Metamorphosis, The Trial, Agamemnon, Hamlet, Macbeth, Wilde’s Salome, Richard II and Coriolanus. Several of these were international tours, to Japan, Los Angeles and Germany to name but a few. As an actor, his one-man show has toured Britain, the USA, South Africa, Finland, Italy, Singapore and Australia. He has made several dubious film appearances, including A Clockwork Orange, Octopussy and Rambo, and he directed and costarred in a film version of his play, Decadence. He has published a variety of books such as, modestly, I Am Hamlet, Meditations on Metamorphosis and his autobiography, Free Association. But despite an extensive biography, Berkoff’s popularity is questionable. He has made several un-politically- correct moves in his career including death threats towards critics and breaking an actors’ union strike by working on a McDonalds commercial. On the whole his ego seems to dominate his press; he doesn’t seem able to keep it in check. This fact was evident when he lectured, especially in his assaults on directors, set designers and critics. Having said this, his skills as an actor cannot be denied. His recent visit to the Oxford Playhouse with his touring show, “Shakespeare’s Villains” was a real treat, perhaps becauseof his unrestrained ego – there is something riveting about watching a stage actor without a shred of modesty deliver classic Shakespeare monologues juxtaposed with his own character interpretations and method, academically presented. Berkoff spoke extensively about acting in his Fourth Week lecture too, heralding it as a “great sacrifice;” as far as I could discern, a sacrifice of one’s own self-consciousness. Deeply ironic, I thought, coming from the most utterly self-indulgent of all thespians. Nonetheless he continued on to propose some reasonable, and rather beautiful, musings on acting, as “exposure to the acid of audience observation” and “maintaining childhood and playfulness” seemingly justifying his participation in this aspect of theatre. On he ploughed, however, to paint a darker picture of the director; an invention of the twentieth century, apparently, which has cost the theatre the loss of the “actor-manager” tradition of the Olivier era. According to Berkoff, actors of the 1800s were “masters of the theatre,” able to return to roles time and again and “flower” into great artists. Today they are at the mercy of the “caveman of theatre;” the director, who paints a replica of reality onto the stage like primitive rock art – his obsession with naturalism is deep-rooted and constraining. Berkoff himself has not, it must be noted, been directed for thirty years, through sheer obstinacy I believe. His objection to directors as a category stems from their youthfulness, since he claims that directing is a natural progression from acting, and thus the great actors of his time should now be becoming directors in a process resembling evolution. Instead, he laments, the profession is overrun with young directors, too weak to act themselves, yet preventing the rites of passage of their seniors. The reasons for young people’s interest in directing seem logical and unsurprising to me – better wages, your n a m e stamped upon a p r o – d u c – tion in the manner formerly enjoyed by actors, and very little responsibility for negative criticism (which is invariably targeted towards actors or playwrights). It is no surprise that the profession is popular. As a director myself, I am very interested in Berkoff’s writing. Despite hearing him slate the profession of directing, I am preparing a production of his as we speak – Messiah : Scenes from a Crucifixion (Old Fire Station Theatre, Eighth Week). How can I defend the process, in the face of such ironic egomaniacal insult? Firstly, it is no coincidence that Steven Berkoff has been touring one-man shows for many years and has not worked with a director for equally as long; he neglects to mention the essential function of equalizationand balance which only a directorial “outsideeye” can perform. Rehearsals are periods of “mixing,” rather like the musicp r o d u c t i o n sense of the term; actors need pushing and p u l l i n g i n t o l i n e with each othersince they have, after all, competing egos just like Berkoff’s. Whether this is conscious or not differs from actor to actor. Once performance level is reached, the discrepancies in experience and skill in the company should be invisible. Secondly, it takes guts to use the level of poetic symbolism Berkoff calls for in directing. Trusting the audience to understand and appreciate the suggestive, the abstract, the minimal, is a sacrifice just as significant as that of the actor, for we are sacrificing the safety of offering our audience something easy, something real. A director who sticks to naturalism does so with good reason – it is expected of him, in a dire self-fulfilling prophecy which is only aggravated by the lamentations from famous names such as Berkoff. My production of Messiah is not, incidentally, one such naturalistic production; it proposes an alternative hypothesis for the story of Jesus, told with the premise that he is not a superhero but an ordinary Jew with charisma, brains and a penchant for spin-doctoring. His last days and his crucifixion are distinctly non-naturalistic; I am attempting to make that sacrifice of safety, and prove Berkoff wrong. I do not think I am, as the director, “parasitic”, “imposing” or “unnecessary” – my process is a consultative, team-building and communally creative one. A director who abhors directing is rather like a chef who refuses to use the electric oven; is it the ultimate self-challenge, or rather an utterly unashamed superiority complex? (“All other directors are parasitic / ineffectual / dull – but I’m the example of how it should be done”) – in Steven Berkoff’s case, the answer is written all over his unfathomable (yet somehow endearing) ego.ARCHIVE: 5th week TT 2004last_img

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