The unconventional actor puts his own spin on Shakespeare

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 December, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 December, 1998, 12:00am

SOME of the reviews for Steven Berkoff's one-man show Shakespeare's Villains - the last-minute replacement show for The Suicide at next year's Arts Festival - have been so dire they actually make the show irresistible.

We get little enough professional English-language theatre here. So who could fail to be intrigued by a show that one critic called 'desperately, pitiably bad' and another dismissed as 'Berkoff very evidently floundering'? Even a third, the most sympathetic, acknowledged it 'may not tell you much you didn't know about Shakespeare's villains. But it tells you a lot about Berkoff.' Luckily there is a lot about Berkoff that is worth finding out about. The first of these is that the critics almost all hate him, so bad notices do not necessarily mean the show is not interesting.

Berkoff, now 60, is a British theatrical institution of great originality and enormous energy, who stood out in the mid-1970s against the prevailing trend of gritty realism, and created a distinctive, stylised, often violent and instantly recognisable genre of his own.

He has staged remarkable original plays such as East, West, Decadence and Greek, and presented radical versions of Shakespeare.

And along the way he has made many enemies and said many outrageous things about conventional theatre that infuriated his critics.

When he threatened to kill one of them after a particularly harsh review, the editor called the police. The critic survived, and is now a Berkoff fan.

Mutual loathing is not unusual between performers and critics, perhaps more remarkable has been Berkoff's aloofness from mainstream luvvie-dom and particularly the subsidised British theatre.

Even those who love to work with him, often admit privately he can be difficult. This antipathy peaked when Berkoff broke a strike organised by the British actors' union, Equity, and recorded a voice-over for McDonald's.

Actors had en masse been refusing to work for the advertising business for several months because of proposals to fiddle with the lucrative repeat-fees deal that meant half-an-hour's work wittering about washing powder could pay the mortgage for a year.

Berkoff said he needed the money, and survived the flak he got from his peers, most of which amounted to threatening not to work with him in the future.

Hong Kongers will probably know him best as a menacing baddie in lots of big-budget Hollywood action movies. He is prepared to sell himself as an actor to subsidise himself as a director, and he took to earning money to continue staging his work.

Berkoff's square face and unblinking large blue eyes made him perfect casting for all kinds of psychotic master criminals and sadistic Russian officers in films such as Rambo II, Beverly Hills Cop and Octopussy.

Shakespeare's Villains, which opens here on February 2, is a mixture of Berkoff's interpretations of roles such as MacBeth, Hamlet, Oberon, Coriolanus, and Richard III (and controversially Shylock, who these days most politically correct productions tend to portray as a victim). We can also see his female impersonator versions of Lady MacBeth and Gertrude.

These performances are vintage Berkoff, which means exaggerated, over-the-top and unforgettable. He also theorises about why Shakespeare's villains turned out so rotten.

There are no extraordinary new insights, but he does occasionally make some interesting suggestions, that soldiers make poor leaders when the war is over (Richard III, Coriolanus), for example.

The part of the performance the critics most enjoyed was Berkoff on the history of acting Shakespeare's villains. He describes David Garrick's ability to lower the temperature of the auditorium with great vividness, and refers admiringly to the challenge of living up to 'Larry's' [Olivier] legacy.

For a man who has prided himself on his rejection of conventional theatre, he is clearly quite fascinated by the great names of British theatre. So much so that one critic was unable to resist accusing him of being a 'Wolfit in sheep's clothing'.

Shakespeare's Villains, APA Lyric Theatre, Feb 2-3, 8pm; Shouson Theatre, Feb 4, 8pm. Tickets $230, $200, $140, students $100, $70, from Urbtix 2734-9009