A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Actor, author, playwright and theatre director Steven Berkoff was born in London in 1937. After studying Drama in London and Paris he performed with repertory companies before forming the London Theatre Group (L.T.G.) in 1968. His first original stage play East, was presented at the Edinburgh Festival in 1975.
A prolific writer, his other original plays include West, Decadence, Greek, Kvetch, Acapulco, Sink the Belgrano, Brighton Beach Scumbags and Ritual in Blood – and he has also published collections of short stories, production journals, travel writings and poetry in addition to his autobiographies Free Association and Diary of a Juvenile Delinquent.
Among his many adaptions for the theatre are Kafka’s Metamorphosis (now a GCSE set text) and The Trial, Agamemnon (after Aeschylus), Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher as well as a stage version of Elia Kazan/Budd Schulberg’s On the Waterfront.
His work has been – and continues to be – performed in many countries and languages and tours both in the UK and abroad with his one-man shows. He has also directed and toured productions of Hamlet, Macbeth and Oscar Wilde’s Salome.
His film career has been equally diverse with appearances in A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Passenger, Octopussy, Beverly Hills Cop, Rambo, Under the Cherry Moon, Absolute Beginners and The Krays. He also directed and co-starred with Joan Collins in the film version of Decadence.
He is still as busy and driven as ever, continuing to both write and perform, and in 2013/14 took his first steps into the world of self-publishing with Bad Guy: Journal of a Hollywood Turkey and the production journal Richard II in New York.
His first novel – Sod the Bitches – has just been published, amidst some controversy, by Urbane Publications.
In the midst of his many current commitments he recently found time to answer a few questions for us …
VL: Given that you’re a man who has more or less turned ploughing your own furrow into an art form, it isn’t surprising that you decided to self-publish both Bad Guy and Richard II in New York; the surprise lies in the fact that you chose that route because you couldn’t find a publisher for them – although you did find one for your latest book. After umpteen volumes of plays, poetry, autobiography and short stories that’s a bit startling to say the least. What reasons – if any – were you given by the commercial publishers for not wanted to handle your work?
SB: The reasons are numerous and mainly seem to centre on what will give the publishers a swift profit. Although I have sold many tens of thousands of plays for Faber & Faber, there is always somebody there who seems to have an allergy to all my recent works.
I did send my most recent book to one or two other publishers who, whilst admiring, felt it too risky.
In the end, Matt Smith of Urbane Publications was enthusiastic and supportive from the beginning.
He also did a first class job of editing, which streamlined the book.
VL: Publishers are in the business of making money, of course, but we’re increasingly seeing accusations of dumbing down being levelled at the major publishing houses. There was, for instance, much jumping on the Fifty Shades of Grey bandwagon, but it’s sadly hard to imagine many of them being prepared, now, to put their professional necks on the block to publish a book in the way, for instance, that Marion Boyars did for Last Exit to Brooklyn. Do you think the pursuit of profit is in danger of becoming the be-all and end-all of publishing?
SB: Yes, profit does seem to be the main influence and people like Marion Boyars and Jonathan Calder are sadly disappearing. Calder published my very first collection of short stories called Gross Intrusion and I was always grateful to him for his support.
VL: Having tried self-publishing, is it something you’d do again? I imagine you enjoyed the freedom of it.
SB: Yes, I would love to do it again since it is incredibly tedious to have one’s work read and passed over by some Oxbridge wimp.
VL: Going back to Bad Guy and Richard II in New York, they’re two very different books … but with a unifying thread running through them: the way professional actors are treated by the industries that depend on them to put the proverbial bums on seats. Your attempts to retain some degree of artistic integrity in the face of the megalomaniac director in Bad Guy make for entertaining reading, in an appalling sort of way, but also highlight the fact that the people who have the money in the film world display seldom have the vision or talent to go with it. It must be very hard to stay true to yourself under those circumstances – and you’ve been doing it for a long time …
SB: Enjoyed writing Bad Guy and particularly Richard II, which Faber turned down although they had already published a successful work journal called I am Hamlet, which was well-reviewed. This would have made a fantastic companion piece, so unfortunately I had to go to self-publishing.
Regarding being true to yourself when working for less than talented film producers, it’s also challenging and I have written many works stimulated by that, i.e. my play Acapulco, when doing Rambo with Sylvester Stallone.
VL: Richard II in New York is different to Bad Guy, in that you had artistic control of the project – but even there, people with little to no grasp of the theatre were ultimately making the decisions and pulling the strings. It’s a fascinating insight into your creative processes though – they’re very different to those of – let’s say more orthodox directors. Your approach is much more experimental and organic … working with the actors and going with the text to see where it takes you. But that requires a particular sort of actor, doesn’t it – quite a brave one?
SB: I enjoyed directing, since as you say you are not only in control, but attempting to illuminate the work with whatever insights and techniques one has gleaned over the years.
The actors are always with me since I make them the backbone of the play and not devote excess time with the stars leaving the ensemble to fend for themselves, as in our usual ghastly Shakespeare productions we see in England.
VL: You’ve been known to be a bit scathing about today’s generation of actors; are there any you feel have – in your own words – ‘that glint of the possessed’?
SB: There are many actors that have, over the years, developed immense power and technique . Perhaps not as much as there were in my younger days, but I have seen Antony Sher be brilliant in Death of a Salesman, in a performance that can only be developed by an actor who has spent decades on stage.
Also, Mark Strong was excellent recently in A View from the Bridge.
Richard Armitage was also quite spellbinding in The Crucible.
We notice that all these performances were in Arthur Miller plays, which suggests to me that great actors are only made from great dramas. Since there are so few great modern dramas, it’s not attracting or developing great modern actors.
VL: Your latest book – with the typically uncompromising title of Sod the Bitches! – has just been published by a new kid on the publishing block, which you mentioned earlier – Urbane Publishing. It’s being marketed as your first novel, but reading it, there are very clear echoes of your own life in it. I’m prepared to be wrong, but I got the definite feeling that it was a cathartic venting of spleen … and it became a novel almost accidentally.
But it was still a work of fiction with much invention and what could be better than to vent ones most poisonous spleen under the guise of ‘Literary’ work!
VL: Inevitably, accusations of misogyny have been levelled at both it and you … although I didn’t find it particularly so – it was too OTT for me to take it entirely seriously (sorry). I was mostly struck by the fact that it seemed to be two completely different books woven together – the first about John’s tormented and really seedy personal life and the second about his acting career. The sections dealing with acting are quite lyrical, the others – not so much – in fact, reading them is like being bludgeoned repeatedly over the head with a brick. I remember East having a similar effect on me. You like to unsettle people, don’t you?
SB: Sorry for that, it’s not my intention to unsettle people.
VL: Many years ago, I read Virginia Fairweather’s Cry God for Larry and she told a story about Laurence Olivier that I’ve never forgotten. One night when he was playing Othello, he gave such an astonishing performance it was as if he had moved to a higher plane than everyone else. He was, by all accounts, absolutely mesmerizing … so much so that the cast lined his route back to his dressing room and applauded him. He just stalked straight past them all and slammed the door. When someone worked up the courage to go in and say “What’s wrong? You were stunning out there tonight”, he replied, “I know I was, but I have no idea how I did it.”
Has anything like that ever happened to you?
SB: I know this story and I believe it’s a hoary old chestnut. Larry always knew exactly how he did it, but wasn’t sure how he could repeat it, so much depends on the chemicals in the brain on the night. But I do know exactly how he felt and he was a brilliant Othello and I in fact was there that very night, it was a first night in Chichester after a season at the Old Vic and it was beyond spell-binding… and the reason why white actors should never be denied the right to play any role in drama.
That is a form of PC fascism which actors detest.
VL: You and ‘The Establishment’ have long been at odds with each other; it’s why you started writing your own material – so it must be very deeply satisfying to see one of your plays – your adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis – become a set text at GCSE.
SB: Yes it is, very much so.
VL: Say ‘Steven Berkoff’ to many, possibly most, people these days and they’ll think Octopussy or Beverly Hills Cop rather than East or Sink the Belgrano – in fact introductory preambles to interviews or articles with or about you invariably mention General Orloff and Victor Maitland. Does that rankle, or are you inured to it after all these years?
SB: Not a bit, I’m glad to be offered those roles so I can survive between rejections.
VL: Are there any roles – classical or otherwise – you’d have liked to play but never got the chance?
SB: No, I’ve played most of them.
VL: You’re in your late 70s, you’ve written several of the most iconoclastic plays in British – if not world – theatre, you’re a critically acclaimed actor, writer and poet … many people your age, who have achieved what you have, would be considering putting the brakes on and slowing down. But you’re showing no signs of doing any such thing and plainly have zero intention of going gentle into that good night. What is it that drives you on?
SB: The boredom of BBC telly.
VL: Finally, it’s a tradition for us to ask our guests to name five works – plays, books, poems – that have been influential in their lives:
SB: Oscar Wilde’s Salome.
Edmund Rostand’s Cyrano De Bergerac.
Andrew Schartzbart’s The Last of the Just.
Franz Kafka’s The Trial.
(Photo credits: www.stevenberkoff.com)
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