I’d heard a couple of misleading things about Steven Berkoff
before he came to the Public Theater with his one-man show on Shakespeare’s Villains . I knew vaguely
he was an actor-director, considered an outsider and some kind of avant-garde
critic of establishment Shakespeare in the U.K.
And then there was the remark a renowned Shakespeare scholar
made to me about Mr. Berkoff’s Hamlet .
I’d asked the scholar-a notoriously cantankerous and hard-to-please guy-which
was the most impressive performance of
Hamlet he’d seen. “Steven Berkoff’s,” he said without hesitation. “It
sounds kind of wild and crazy when you describe it, though,” he added “because,
for instance, in the closet scene his Hamlet fucks Gertrude.”
Also misleading. Well, as we’ll see, partly misleading.
But I think what’s most misleading about Mr. Berkoff is the
avant-garde label. He likes to say that most contemporary directors and players
of Shakespeare are still working with “Pasteur’s microscope” while what he does
is comparable to the electron microscope.
True in part, perhaps, but I think the best way to look at
Mr. Berkoff, now 63, is not as an avant-gardiste but as a kind of flamboyant
throwback: a throwback to an earlier, grander age of Shakespearean players, the
age of Garrick and Kean and Edwin and John Wilkes Booth. An era in which
Shakespeareanactors-whenthey weren’t assassinating Presidents-were slaying
audiences. An era when grand, operatic, gestural histrionics caused weeping,
wailing, fainting and frenzy. When Shakespearean actors did to audiences what
rock stars do today.
It’s a style of acting most modern Shakespeareans have
abandoned, virtually fled from, in order to seek the subtleties and the
subtexts in a more “naturalistic” style. But Shakespeare wasn’t always a naturalist.
After all, he wrote in iambic pentameter, not prose, for the most part, and
even his prose is heightened, not prosaic. And watching Mr. Berkoff, you
realize there’s something lost, something missing in even the very best of
contemporary players: the pure relish for the grand gestural operatic moment,
the thespian passion that made Shakespeare the rage, rather than just a sage.
Mr. Berkoff’s impassioned embodiment of Shakespearean
villains is often electrifying in that old-fashioned pre-Victorian way. He
endows them with a disturbing power, more profound than the intellectual explanation of evil he offers during his
show, which relies a bit too much, for my taste, on social-worker victimology:
Figures like Richard III turn bad because they “lack love” or, like Shylock,
they’re “cut off from community.”
But I’ve sometimes found,
in talking to talented actors (Jack Nicholson, for instance), that they need an
intellectual rationale to hang on to in order to liberate-give them permission
to unleash-performances that strike chords darker and more disturbing than the
abstract rationales. And when I say Mr. Berkoff’s histrionic style is a
throwback, I mean that as a compliment. Not “throwback” in the sense of
antiquated, but “throwback” in the sense that you feel hurled back in time to a kind of experience whose raw power made
Shakespeare the rage. Closer to what it was like to be present when
larger-than-life acting sensations like Burbage, Garrick and Kean stalked the
In fact, when we met at his hotel in Gramercy Park to talk
about Shakespeare and acting, Mr. Berkoff told me an extraordinary, emblematic
story about the histrionic tradition: the story of “the sword.”
It’s a story that begins with Byron and Edmund Kean, one of
the great Shakespearean actors of the early 19th century.
“Kean!” Mr. Berkoff exclaims. “He was our greatest, our
patron saint of the theater. He is the true tiger
of the theater. So great-even by reputation, people would faint . Even Byron apparently, in the box one night when Kean was
playing, I think it might have been Othello. And Byron is a quite tough guy,
you know. He’s a poet but he’s tough and he’s seen it all, but he got so
excited he actually passed out
watching. He passed out like people did when they saw Olivier.
“Byron thought Kean was so unbelievable that he had a sword
made. He had a sword inscribed to Kean. And Kean was very flattered because he
was a little bit feeling inferior to these educated poets, you know,
Oxford-trained and cultivated. Kean tried to learn, to teach himself Latin. It
was very moving ….”
There is perhaps a bit of self-identification here with
Kean. Mr. Berkoff, too, was self-educated, does not share in the Oxbridge
background of the main line of Royal Shakespeare Company types in the U.K. He
grew up in London’s East End, a relatively poor Jewish neighborhood, dropped
out of school at 15 and sometimes betrays a touching insecurity about his lack
of Latin-like Kean, indeed like Shakespeare, who was gently mocked by Ben
Jonson for having “small Latine and lesse Greeke.”
But he seems quite knowledgeable about Shakespearean acting.
He continues with the story of “the sword”: “Then Kean died. The sword was
auctioned off and then got into the hands of a dealer. And one day [John]
Gielgud-in 1935, I think-was playing Hamlet. Someone managed, a dealer, to come
backstage and brought the sword and said, ‘This is the most amazing performance
I have ever seen on any stage anywhere in my life,’ and presented him with
Kean’s sword. He said, ‘You must keep this sword, John.’ So John was thrilled,
and he kept the sword for about 15 years. Then one day, Gielgud went to see
Olivier playing Richard III and he says”-Mr. Berkoff does a beautiful Gielgud
imitation, urgent, faint and musical-”‘I can’t … I can’t carry the sword! This is impossible. This man is mad ,
wonderful, exotic. Really, I would feel guilty
to have the sword in my cupboard. I give it to Larry. I don’t give a damn, I’m
done with it.’
“So he goes to Larry and says, ‘Please take this as my
respect for your wonderful performance.’ And Larry said, ‘Well, John, are you
sure you want to give it to me? Because it’s….’ ‘Well, we should pass it on , Larry. If you see somebody, somebody fantastic, something moves you, let’s
pass this wonderful thing on because it comes from Byron to Kean to me. I don’t
think I really deserved it, but it came to me. But you, Larry-wonderful, wonderful performance. Take it, take it,
‘Thank you very much, John; John, it’s beautiful and thank
Now Mr. Berkoff shifts from playing Gielgud to playing
“Olivier took the sword and then he keeps the sword and he’s
thinking, ‘Oh shit, who should I give it to?’ See? And he goes to the theaters
and he thinks, ‘This one? Burton? Hmmmm … no, no, no. Scofield? Yes, he’s pretty
good, pretty good. Alec McCowen? Excellent, excellent-um, no one really.’ And
then he’s dying and Joan [Olivier's wife, Joan Plowright] is saying, ‘Larry,
what about the sword, the sword?’ ‘Well, uh, I haven’t seen anybody really that I felt like giving it to’-This is what I’m
imagining now,” Mr. Berkoff stipulates. “But in the end, he didn’t give it to
anybody. They were not good enough. He knew his standard and he wanted someone
that would thrill him, and he never gave the sword….”
I was fascinated by Mr. Berkoff’s rhapsodic account of
Olivier, an actor who’s become so much a cliché for acting “greatness” that one can forget the force of that
greatness. But Mr. Berkoff can’t forget that Olivier was a force, a power that
changed his life. One he first experienced when he was an acting student with
little interest in Shakespeare.
“I was never into Shakespeare at all as a youth,” he told
me. “I didn’t know anything about Shakespeare.… I didn’t have any revelatory
experience [until] I started watching Olivier’s films.
“It was that experience, seeing him and wanting to be him in
a way, like Muhammad Ali wanted to be like Joe Louis. Olivier was my mentor, my
master; I became obsessed with Olivier, totally obsessed, and I felt that his
daring and what he did was to take the craft into a kind of-an almost
supernatural realm, a ferocity, an energy that I thought was just kind of quite
incredible. That daring, that physical daring.”
Daring, Mr. Berkoff believes, is what’s missing from
contemporary Shakespeare. I’d asked him if he had a critique of current
Shakespearean productions in England-the Royal Shakespeare Company,
establishment Shakespeare. At first, he tried to sound dispassionate.
“I don’t really give a-I don’t really think too much about
them, because I do my own thing. So I mean, I don’t regard them in any
And then, slowly-well, not that slowly-he segued into a rage.
“I think they are traditional and they are still working
with the same telescope-the same microscope that Pasteur used. They have not
yet invented the electron microscope, so they are still looking at things in a
very simplistic way. They’re looking at things through a milk-bottle lens.
They’re not allowing the insight of the unconscious or its physical
manifestations. No shortcuts of using modern techniques that we use in film of
fast forward or flashback. It’s pedestrian, simplistic and eventually damaging.
Deeply damaging to Shakespeare because the human mind is now so sophisticated
through the kind of swift-moving, inventive shortcuts you find in literature,
television, movies, even video. They are taking, dragging Shakespeare on his
knees. They rely on one or two stars and surround it with a tepid, insipid,
ridiculous, dull, placid, old-fashioned, decayed, pedestrian production.”
“But do you have a critique ?”
I asked (jokingly). Not pausing, he continued to rage on:
“It’s awful-I mean, it’s so
awful. Not only is it awful, it’s awful because they consciously resist anyone
like myself or any innovator saying, ‘Let us have a go.’ But they persist in
doing the same old crap. Bring on the dry-ice machines. If I see another ice
machine and steam, I think I’m going to kill somebody.”
The last truly great Shakespeare he saw, he says, was
Olivier’s Othello . “I was very
excited, of course, seeing my idol. And he came on and the whole audience froze . I mean really frightened, frozen,
awestruck. Because he’s kind of like-this is an acting machine ; this is, you know, the Rocky of the classical theater. And
he came on with the robe and he had this white costume and his black makeup
that took three hours to put on, and he’d polished his face, even the eyelids
and under the eyelids and inside the eye, the white and everything, and pink
palms-everything worked , so it was
beautiful. And you have this voice, really deep, wonderful voice: ‘ Keep up your bright swords …’
“And I was thrilled, of course. We’re watching him like he’s
taking us to another world, the world of the super-actor. Something thrilling
about that, quite thrilling, like seeing Kean. As he got into it, as Iago put
the poison in and he starts getting into second gear, you know, he starts to do
things vocally and physically which are strange and bizarre. And with his hands
and fingers and teeth. And he gets excited and starts going into the furore , the fit: ‘ Be sure of it, give me the ocular proof …’ And he grabs himself and
suddenly he becomes-and his hips are moving and there’s excitement and he comes ! Fantastic!
“It’s the end of the first act, you know, and the curtain
comes down, the audience can’t clap because it seemed silly. You couldn’t clap;
clapping was not enough . It seemed
like you’ve seen a human sacrifice
and you could not clap that. You couldn’t even live anymore.”
He laughs. “That was a fantastic night. Everybody changed that night. Nobody remained ever
the same. And then gradually people shifted in their seats and got up. Nobody
spoke. People could barely speak to their partners. Their voices sounded thin,
empty. You couldn’t speak, you were like awestruck. You couldn’t say, you know,
‘What did you think?’ to your lady friend. It was fantastic. So that was
something I never ever witnessed. An audience that was stunned into fright.
Stunned. And then, that night, everybody changed. People who had never made
love to their wives in 30 years fucked like pokers.”
“Was it his charisma or was it, did he have some vision of
Othello that was different from-?”
“It was charisma, power, it was a daring movement, strange,
absurd mannerism, howls, screams, crying. I mean, heaving, you know, weeping.
And crazy gestures. Like when he had the fit: cross-eyed, smelling his hands
and all kind of things he’d worked out or had read about epilepsy when the
smell comes and the-you know, it was the beauty of the gesture ….”
The beauty of the gesture, yes. It’s this gestural power, I
believe, that makes Mr. Berkoff’s Shakespeare so distinctive, links it to the
era of Garrick and Kean. There’s one moment in his show that is a direct
throwback to Garrick. I might not have noticed it for what it was if I hadn’t
recently read about it-but there it was, when Mr. Berkoff was doing a bit from
the scene in the first act when Hamlet first sees the ghost of his father.
The ghost catches him by surprise. It’s midnight on the
battlements of Elsinore, where Hamlet’s come with Horatio to glimpse the
specter he’s heard about. As he waits, he delivers a long meditation on the
origin of evil-its source in the “vicious mole of nature” within man-when,
suddenly, Horatio interrupts:
“Look, my lord, it comes.”
It’s the moment when the supernatural abruptly breaks into
Hamlet’s previously naturalistic world (in which evil is merely psychological:
“the vicious mole of nature “).
It’s at this moment-at the first glimpsing of the ghost-that
Mr. Berkoff, as Hamlet, slowly turns and gives a sudden, exaggerated gesture:
One hand flies up to his face to forfend the dread sight, the other shoots out
and up as if to touch the specter. I’d just seen a drawing of that very
gesture, one of the most famous in theatrical history. The gesture made by the
legendary Shakespearean Garrick when he played Hamlet.
“Were you consciously replicating that gesture?” I asked Mr.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “One critic-I forget who it was-said
that when Garrick saw the ghost, he made the whole audience think there was a ghost there. The temperature of the theater went down . The critic actually felt
it getting cold . He did something. It started very, very
slow, and then he sees it, and then he goes-from the slowness and people
getting used to slowness…”
We were in the brightly lit dining room of the Gramercy Park
Hotel as Mr. Berkoff began to act out the Garrick-seeing-the-ghost gesture.
It’s late morning; the place is empty except for a waiter rattling a tray of
coffee cups. Nothing could be further from the chill, midnight parapets of
Elsinore. And yet …. Mr. Berkoff begins the gesture just as slowly as he says.
He turns in his seat toward me, glances up to his left-and suddenly, without
warning, like some swift Bruce Lee kata ,
one hand shoots up, fending off the Supernatural, the other shields his eyes
from the terror. I have to admit it snuck up and startled me, that gesture: a
representation of terror that was itself terrifying.
There was, however, one gesture (shall we say) from his
production of Hamlet that Mr. Berkoff
didn’t reproduce in his one-man show:
the gesture which led that Shakespeare scholar to recall that Mr. Berkoff’s
Hamlet “fucks Gertrude.” Of course, ever since Olivier it isn’t novel to play
up the Oedipal tension between Hamlet and his mother, particularly in the
so-called closet scene when Hamlet confronts her with her sexual guilt for
betraying his father. But fucking
Gertrude-was it an effort to top Olivier, so to speak?
“Did you ‘fuck Gertrude’?” I asked him.
“No, not at all,” he says.
“It looked as if I
was,” he continues, “because it’s a very dramatic scene and I do have Gertrude
on the floor. We had no bed in our production. And as I’m telling her, you
know, ‘Refrain,’ etc., etc.-refrain from having sex with Claudius, your
husband’s murderer and usurper-I’m on top of her by that time; not kind of
crotch-to-crotch, but just on my knees holding her down. And I say, ‘It shall
go hard / But I will delve one yard
below their mines / And blow them at the moon,’ and it was almost orgasmic when
I say this to her …. I tried to make the words fit and I pressed myself right
into her crotch. I didn’t fuck her, of course, but I pressed myself right into
her crotch and had an orgasm. It’s quite disgusting,” he laughs. “Because I got
up and loosened my trouser where [ I think he means "as if" ] the sperm flowed
down the leg.”
Well, I guess that explains the misunderstanding.
“Yes, well, a little frottage,” he says. “I was using her
body as a kind of metaphor, to point [illustrate] the lines.” It was violent,
he says: “It was sex and murder.”
Mr. Berkoff has an interesting theory that sex or talk of
sex in Shakespeare is almost inevitably followed by violence, even murder. He
believes that “in Shakespeare’s warped mind” there is some unhealthy connection
between the two.
“Shakespeare’s warped mind”: I think it’s valuable and
important that Mr. Berkoff is capable of an unsparing critique of Shakespeare,
a refreshing departure from the kind of Bardolatry which insists on seeing
Shakespeare as exempt from all mortal and moral flaw.
Which brings us to Mr. Berkoff’s Shylock.
It’s the most truthful and the most terrible moment in his Villains piece. It’s the most truthful
and the most terrible Shylock I’ve seen. Truthful, in part, because it’s a throwback,
a throwback to the deeply repellent character Shakespeare created. A throwback
that has no truck with contemporary cant of the sort that attempts to exculpate
Shakespeare and Shylock. The intellectual fallacy, the comforting but deluded
evasion that has pervaded many recent productions of The Merchant of Venice : the belief that if you make Shylock a nicer guy , play him with more dignity,
you can somehow transcend the ineradicable anti-Semitism of the character.
The problem with the warm and fuzzy Shylock-the feel-good
Shylock, you might say-is that it doesn’t diminish, it actually deepens and
exacerbates the anti-Semitism. The “nicer” you make the moneylender, the more
you end up making the play not about the villainy of one Jew, but the villainy
of all Jews-a deep-seated villainy that subsists beneath the surface in even
those who appear nice on the surface. The more warm and fuzzy you make Shylock,
the more you make The Merchant of Venice
a play about the fact that even such a Jew will not hesitate, when it comes
down to it, to take a knife and cut the heart out of a Christian.
Sorry, it’s just not a character you can make nice about or
rationalize, as some do, by emphasizing the play’s critique of the money-hungry
Christians as well. Christians weren’t slaughtered because of their religious
stereotypes in Europe; Jews were. None of the Christian characters played the
ugly and vicious role Shylock did in Nazi propaganda.
Steven Berkoff’s Shylock is courageous in being utterly
uncompromising on the stage. His Shylock is the Jew in the medieval woodcut.
His Shylock is a creature of sinister
obsequiousness and spittle, a groveling incarnation of the Jew of Goebbels and
Streicher-and, alas, Shakespeare.
Again, Mr. Berkoff’s achievement as an actor is more
impressive than his intellectual rationale, which seems to me to let
Shakespeare off the hook by arguing that since Shakespeare didn’t really know
any Jews (most of them had been expelled from England in the 13th century), his
Shylock is just a matter of taking a stock-villain stereotype down from the
shelf. No special animus. Mr. Berkoff compares Shakespeare’s Jewish villain to
his use of Italian villains, the way they reflect their stereotype of the
But Shakespeare’s Italian villains, however sinister, are
more Commedia dell’Arte types-they don’t partake of the deep theological hatred
that Christian anti-Semitism endowed Jews with, the sick Christ-killing imagery
that Shakespeare endows his Jew with.
But Mr. Berkoff’s embodiment of Shylock (as opposed to his
exculpatory intellectual rationale) is a powerful piece of truth-telling, and
an important reproof to the feel-good Shylocks of late.
Which made the applause even more puzzling. In the version
of the Villains piece I saw at Joe’s
Pub back in November (Mr. Berkoff’s in a larger venue at the Public this
month), Mr. Berkoff’s Shylock was the last bit before the intermission. And
after a slight pause to register that it was the first-act curtain, the crowd
burst into applause. Of course, it could be interpreted as applause for Mr.
Berkoff in general and not for Shylock. But it didn’t leave me feeling like
applauding, precisely because it was so truthful.
Perhaps the audience had bought into Mr. Berkoff’s
intellectual rationale-Shylock’s just another colorful Shakespearean
villain-but the flesh-and-blood embodiment was something more profound and
disturbing than that. It deserved praise, yes, but applause seemed all wrong.
As Mr. Berkoff said of Olivier’s Othello: “It seemed like you’ve seen a human sacrifice , and you could not clap that.”
Follow Ron Rosenbaum via RSS.