By Jeremy Miles
In a long and distinguished career spanning an astonishing 50 years, writer, actor and director Steven Berkoff has managed to confound and confuse the theatrical establishment.
Back in the early days they bridled against this East End boy on the make, dismissing him as a crazed firebrand. Berkoff, the Stepney born son of a Russian Jewish tailor, was having none of it. He fought tooth and nail for artistic independence and went on to produce some truly stunning plays - a radical body of work that brought him both widespread acclaim and a certain degree of notoriety.
It became routine for journalists to paint him as a terrifying and menacing character. In reality this observation was probably a little wide of the mark. His reputation as a hard-man though has probably served him well. There has been acres of publicity about how scary he is.
In the meantime Berkoff has played his bad-boy image to the hilt, all the while swaggering happily onwards, adapting Kafka and Shakespeare and writing searingly intelligent original works while effortlessly getting up the nose of the establishment.
It was soon realised however that, while Berkoff appeared to adopt an uncompromisingly confrontational approach to life, no one could accuse him of lacking integrity.
Eyebrows were raised when in a bizarre parallel career found him appearing in a string of mainstream Hollywood movies and for a time cornering the market in baddies in films like Octopussy, Beverly Hills Cop and Rambo.
When I spoke to Berkoff at his studio overlooking the Thames at Limehouse, just a barrow boy’s shout from the East End of his youth, he defended his populist film work, saying:
“I enjoy it. It’s still work you know!” The advantages, he said, were travel to exotic locations and the chance to work piecemeal, just shooting your own scenes - a welcome respite from the nightly slog of a theatre run.
He also liked the fact that film keeps you on the ball. “You’re captured forever so you need to be alert.”
Berkoff was in reflective mood. “I’m 74 -years old. I dwell in the past.” he told me. “I like looking back. It’s as though I know the sands are running out and therefore life is so precious to me that I look back on it savouring it, re-examining it…”
Wow! I wasn’t expecting that! Of course this is partly Berkoff being Berkoff. He has always tended to says things for dramatic effect. All evidence however points to the fact that he ‘s not about to hang up his anger just yet. Prod him a little and he makes it clear that there is still much to rail against.
However he sees the future in youth and says he’s seriously looking forward to appearing at An Audience With Steve Berkoff at Bournemouth’s Avonbourne School partly because he finds young people so stimulating.
“They are very imaginative, very responsive and haven’t been been soured by their experiences like so many older people have. The young have their life and imagination ahead of them.”
Berkoff himself had a tough childhood. With a doting mother but a largely absent father who spent the family income on gambling, he grew against a backdrop of social and political upheaval and the terror of the Second World War. He was just three years old when his family home was destroyed in the Blitz. I ask him if he has any memories of what happened. “No”, he tells me. “I don’t remember the war very well at all. I just remember going to the shelters when we heard the sirens. When our house had a direct hit I was in Whitechapel Undergound. We came out and the house had gone.” He claims to remember the sculptor Henry Moore wandering through the wartime underground with his sketchbook. “He was always around.” he told me. “Funny old geezer, always cadging fags.” This I suspect is Berkoff being fanciful, winding me up, taking the piss, being Berkoff!
Needless to say his launch into the world of professional theatre did not come without a struggle. After a spell in borstal for nicking a bike and then drama school, he hit the repertory theatres in the early 1960s. Initially it was disastrous but then he started writing his own plays.
“I found life very difficult as an actor before I decided create my own theatre pieces,” he told me. “I’d audition for rep and get rejected. It was awful but I had to keep on. I couldn’t let it get me down. I regarded every rejection as an opportunity and I think in the end it toughened me and made me write my own plays.”
So far so good but then much to Berkoff’s dismay the plays were rejected too.”I thought ‘well sod this bunch of mediocrities’ I’ll put them on myself.”
He found a room above a pub and set about recruiting some like minded souls. “I found a few local actors who I knew who were also full of spirit and zest and explained that while we had no money at least we could work.”
They started doing workshops once a week but soon got touring dates. “We always found somewhere to perform” says Berkoff. “It just proves once again that every rejection is an opportunity.”
It seems he is still being presented with “opportunities” on a regular basis. He would love to find a West End theatre willing to take his lavishly reviewed production of Oedipus.
The show which finds Sophocles 2,500 years old drama re-imagined in London’s East End in the 20th century enjoyed triumphant runs in Liverpool and Nottingham and took this year’s Edinburgh Fringe by storm. The Sunday Times called it “The bravest, most exciting and moving Greek tragedy in years.”
Despite all this Berkoff had to struggle from day one to make it happen. “Even at my age and with my proven success I had to put the actors together and pay them myself. It’s a tremendous production with marvellous actors but do you think I can get a West End theatre for it? No!”
He finds this particularly galling because, after years in the artistic doldrums, the West End is enjoying a renaissance. ”There’s some much better theatre going on there,” says Berkoff. “They’ve just reopened with Mark Rylance in Jerusalem, there’s Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass with Tony Sher, Wesker’s The Kitchen at the National which is a very inventive production, then you’ve got Warhorse... There’s just so much more to see than there used to be. It’s amazing.”
The door however remains firmly shut (so far) to the likes of Steven Berkoff. He’s philosophical. “Unless you come from the subsidised theatre and you’ve had a try-out, you have to go direct to West End management, which I do, and I’ve had some success.”
So far he’s had seven plays with West End billing but says it’s getting harder. “These days they want to know who’s in it, who’s the star.” He let’s out a sigh: “That’s the most brutal way of creating art when it’s has to depend on whether some old hack movie actor is in it.”
*An Audience With Steven Berkoff in association with Clive Conway Celebrity Productions is at Avonbourne School in Harewood Avenue, Bournemouth on Wednesday November 16. Tickets from Paul Nelson, Head of Drama either via a email - firstname.lastname@example.org Tel - 01202 398451