You may know him from his roles as General Orlov in the James Bond film Octopussy, as Adolf Hitler in the TV mini-series War and Remembrance or from the line in the Queen song “I’m Scared”, but Steven Berkoff is also a prolific writer and director of some of our most experimental theatre and film, starting way back in the 1960s when he staged numerous productions at the Roundhouse.
Steven Berkoff is an English actor, author, playwright and theatre director, best-known for his provocative, innovative and boundary-defying interpretations. He not only writes the plays, but often takes the leading parts and directs them.
A Sunday Telegraph article from 18 Nov 1973 observed that “drama is not just a matter of words to him. It also involves merging music, dance, mime – but not of the conventional kind.”
His plays and adaptations have been performed in many countries and in many languages. A number of Berkoff’s adaptations were performed at the Roundhouse, most notably Kafka’s Metamorphosis (1969) and Kafta’s The Trial (1970), Aeschylus’ Greek drama Agamemnon (1973) and Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1980).
The appeal of the Roundhouse was the freedom that it allowed. It was a space that gave him permission ‘to exploit every staircase, pillar and gallery’ and to play up the mysterious and enigmatic nature that they felt the building exuded.
More about Berkoff’s best known Roundhouse productions:
Franz Kafta was this century’s supreme teller of fables; his imagined distopias are as relevant today as when they were written in the early 20th century.
“In Metamorphosis, the hero … wakes up one morning to find that he has turned into a giant insect. (The play) is set in a kind of skeleton tent, the characters, white-faced or masked, move with the precision of robots, sometimes accompanied by the sound of a metronome, often speaking in unison.” (Frank Marcus, Sunday Telegraph 20 Jul 1969)
This is one of the first plays that Berkoff performed after forming London Theatre Group in 1968. It was consider by one reviewer as “a powerful, yet vividly funny, version of Kafka’s dark fantasy pointing out that human beings will inevitably become the thing they are treated as.” ( Jack Tinker, Daily Mail 1969)
The Trial (1970)
Mentions of trials for unknown offences, inescapable, unexplained doom or men sucked helplessly into oblivion, are characteristics in the wider world of performance that are considered to be “Kaftaesque”. The Trial significantly contributes to this reputation as it’s about a man arrested and prosecuted for a crime that is not revealed to him or to the reader.
London Theatre Group (under the direction of Berkoff), began their four-week season of The Trial at the Roundhouse in 1970.
“In Berkoff’s hands, the story offers wonderful opportunities for playfulness and clowning, but he is also the master manipulator of dark and painful nerves which are set a-jangling all through the psyche.” (Clare Bayley, What’s On 1970)
Berkoff says “these plays (including Agamemnon) were written to exorcise certain demons struggling within me to escape. Agamemnon is filtered through my own impressions of Greece and is rooted in the elements of landscape, and sea… It is about heat and battle, fatigue, the marathon and the obscenity of modern and future wars”.
“In 1980, Berkoff played Hamlet at London’s Roundhouse in a production that he staged with, in his own words, ‘utter simplicity’. When Nicholas de Jongh gave Hamlet a bad review, Berkoff threatened to kill him.” (Stage Writers, The Guardian website, 2007)
For the majority of Berkoff’s productions he used a predominantly monochromatic palette. He believed that colour was distracting:
“I like the plainness, the simplicity of black and white. I like the grizzliness, like an old photograph . . . so, I think black and white is more dynamic and colors (sic) can interfere unless they have a purpose, a point” (Personal interview).
This simplistic palette helped convey the paranoia and emotional suffocation present in many of his plays (especially the Kafta adaptions). Yet, there was still a lightness to his productions and this juxtaposition of mood made the Roundhouse a perfect raw canvas for his work.
When reflecting on the experimental nature of Berkoff’s plays one journalist noted that “the Roundhouse, like its name, had no edges or boundaries and seemed to accept you as long as you had no boundaries either.” (The Independent 1999)