Berkoff Is Back! Where Did He Go?

Unfortunately, I had to miss Steven Berkoff’s last appearance in town due to an appointment with my manicurist. Bias is a terrible thing, I know. But from where I sit, on my high horse, this notorious British actor, whose spécialité de la maison has been portraying psychopathic killers, villains and various beasts, isn’t the most subtle of performers. He overacts with a mad, furious force that I’ve never witnessed onstage before, although I haven’t seen Edmund Kean at his histrionic height.

Kean, the 19th-century English star, was “possessed of a fury, a demon that leaves him no repose, no time for thought or room for imagination,” according to Hazlitt, although Coleridge was famously more in awe of him. (“To see Kean was to read Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.”) This is the thing. Stephen Berkoff would like to be Edmund Kean. We all have our dreams.

How does the Hamlet quotation go? “Conscience doth make theatergoers of us all.” A recent advert announcing, somewhat threateningly, that “BERKOFF IS BACK” struck my conscience. So many urgent questions now crowded my mind. What if Berkoff is back but never went away? What if I’ve been wrong about him? What if he isn’t a nut? What if the earth is flat? What if chewing the scenery during eye-popping strangulation scenes is good ?

And so I went to see his latest one-man show entitled–not too thrillingly, I must say– One Man . The evening of three monologues at the enterprising Culture Project downtown has also been written, adapted, directed and devised by Mr. Berkoff, so there wasn’t too much room to maneuver. But I’m happy to report that it was during the third manic piece, when the star portrayed both a psychotic British soccer fan and his pit bull pet, Roy (also a ferocious psychotic), that I understood at last the mysterious nature of Mr. Berkoff’s unarguable gifts, which go to the very twisted heart of England.

It took a while. His journey in mime and words into the schizoid mind of Edgar Allan Poe’s killer in The Tell-Tale Heart was, I’m afraid, Berkoff business as usual. Nineteenth-century Grand Guignol acting isn’t necessarily the best way to convey 19th-century Grand Guignol. The hammy tics and wild flourishes belong to Victorian side-show melodrama on the edge of self-parody. He even manages to overact with his tongue. The creaky sound effects are out of cheap horror movies. The unbelievably egotistical performance is mock horror instead of the real thing. All in all, he’s given Poe the ghoulish silent- movie treatment, which is like mustache-twirling for laughs. The actorly business–the Berkoff stuff –actually distracts us from the darkly subversive story, which is why we’re never spooked as Poe intended.

On the other hand, I know of no other actor who gives us different readings of the same line during a performance, as if taking part in an actor’s exercise. In the School of Great Imaginary British Acting, Mr. Berkoff also elongates and mangles certain words in all solemn theatricality. Thus, “feel” becomes feeeeeowlll ; “disembowel” deees-mbooool . Then again, he likes to pronounce “dead” with a “t” on the endt.

Nevermindt.

If the Poe performance is really about a bad Victorian actor acting badly, the second piece is about a bad contemporary actor who can’t get work. Entitled Actor , it turned out to be less actorish than the first. But only just.

Mr. Berkoff has borrowed from Marcel Marceau’stoo-renowned ” marche sur place ” as his actor in perpetual motion walks forever on the same spot, getting nowhere. His obsessed thespian on the road to oblivion is a luvvie in the showbiz tradition of public faux cheeriness. “Hello, Richard, and how are you? Working? … Hello, Peter, how are you ? I’m doing well, too. Working?” That honeyed, desperate enquiry–” Working? “–is the drowning actor’s plea for the comfort of mutual failure. But this party piece in actorly angst and rejection is familiar and sketchy, its echoes of Marcel Marceau de trop , the bathetic quotations from Hamlet –”slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” no less–also de trop .

All bets were on the third piece, entitled Dog . Against the grain, it was here that I saw, as it were, the Berkoff light. A lunatic soccer-loving skinhead appears in a Union Jack T-shirt. His beer belly sags over his sweat pants as he struggles with an imaginary dog called Roy, who’s straining dangerously on his lead. Mr. Berkoff plays the dog, too. Those of you offended by the C-word, please read no further.

Still with us, eh? Oh, good . The skinhead warns us about his mad dog, “Nah, ‘e’s alright, ‘e gets a bit excited, that’s all, ‘e’s got a bad press, ‘snot his fault that kid stuck his nut [head] between his jaws. Come ‘ere, you little bastard!”

Whereupon the dog answers back, “Stop pulling my lead, you cunt, or I’ll sink my teeth into your fuckin’ leg.”

“‘Ere, come ‘ere, you naughty boy,” his master responds affectionately. “Nah, ‘e’s lovely ‘e is, arncha, Roy? You can pat ‘im! Go on, PAT ‘IM!! ‘E won’t ‘urtcha.”

But he will. He will ‘ urtcha …. And yet we laugh at Mr. Berkoff’s lethally wonderful invention of the pride of England, the East End soccer fanatic and racist thug and his loyal companion, Roy the psychotic pit bull terrier. Both are one and the same out-of-control foaming thing . Mr. Berkoff’s real talent, thus far hidden from me, has come to the boil to create a vivid Cockney grotesque in the great tradition of Dickens.

The language is rude, though vigorous and alive. “GGGGGGGGGG-GGGGGGGGRRRRRRRRRRR. STOP PULLING MY LEAD OR I’LL BITE YOUR FUCKIN’ LEG OFF!” There are links with British music hall, where a legendary Northern comic named Al Read invented an act with an imaginary dog. “Sit! I said SIT!” he would command in utter exasperation as he was about to be pinned against a wall. “I SAID SIT!” The playful man-dog relationship in drama goes back to Shakespeare, of course, with the clown Launce and his mongrel Crab in Two Gentlemen of Verona . If we want to get really fancy–and we do–we could say there are artistic links between Mr. Berkoff’s thugs and the more extreme English version of Pulcinella, who became violent, lawless Punch getting away with murder.

His grotesque inventions take us on a guided tour of bloody muggings –”ROY, GET THAT JAW OPEN, YOU BASTARD. Bless ‘im, ‘e’s got a bite like a steel vice.” Our skinhead antihero sinks 35 pints of lager at the pub before throwing up horribly. “WHOOOOOOSH! Right skating rink it was. ‘Course, Roy’s not fussy …. ”

At one particularly foul point, Roy’s master puts his head affectionately in his jaws and seems to come out the other end. But I don’t want to go into that now.

The important thing is that my eyes were opened to a historic comic tradition bursting from that thoroughly splendid actor, Steven Berkoff. The notion that British humor is dryly cultivated or harmlessly eccentric is little more than a nice, exportable myth. In a new book entitled British Greats that I’ve been enjoying sip by sip since Christmas, various top essayists write on what makes Britain great, from fish and chips to the decoding of Enigma to the works of Turner. The novelist Howard Jacobson, writing on British humor, hits the nail on the head: “If we are sometimes accused of unsubtlety in our comedy, of lacking light and shade, here is the reason–we prefer exaggeration, and look for truth in vehemence …. It is evident that our culture is characterized by ‘a sustained note of fury.’ Who we might happen to be furious with at any time is not the issue. Nor does it matter why. We value fury, simply, as an aesthetic good in itself.”

So Mr. Berkoff’s comic grotesqueries, monstrous Roy and his master, like Dickens’ Quilp, or Punch, the possessed Edmund Kean, or Rowlandson caricatures, revel and wallow in everything we might consider to be uncivilly, unacceptably, horribly British. Not so sure about his Edgar Allan Poe, who’s American anyway. Very sure about the dog. Berkoff Is Back! Where Did He Go?