Originally posted August 1st 2013
As I type, I’m sitting in the library of NIDA…getting ready to work with the third year NIDA actors.
I’m half way through the NIDA year and have learnt that methodology is more useful to me as a reflective tool than a creative one. Stanislavski was a genius…but applying a regime to a play is fraught with potholes. It’s necessary to take from Stanislavski what you find useful for yourself as a director, rather than adopt a whole set of ideas. It is a marvelous toolkit…one that will stand me in good stead as I move further along the track.
For now, all I can do is look back over some of the highlights from my time here and hope that the year keeps progressing the way it has. Each new week brings different challenges and different rewards. I can’t help but admire the actors I have worked with so far. At times they have left me awestruck…both ACA and at The University of Woollongong.
My fellow directors are just as talented…and I am extremely jealous of their youth, vitality and intellect. I have no problem boasting about them. They are the future of Australian Theatre. I feel rich when I am around them. I am a blessed man indeed to be in the company of such talent. All that is left to do in this post is to provide you with some visuals from the year so far.
As I polished this piece of writing a few nights ago I looked out to the roof of NIDA from my balcony where a recent Gala was held to raise money. I sat through the tech run the night before and, apparently, mention is to be made of Nick Enright and his contribution to theatre. During the tech run a small spotlight falls on the glass cabinet dedicated to him. The rich and the elite of the theatre world will no doubt be in attendance. Amongst them, so I was told, will be past directorial alumni. Theatrical lineage is discussed a lot at NIDA, so I anticipate the names of Jim Sharman through to Kip Williams will be discussed in that foyer tonight. My eyes move back to my desk and I see on the shelf a text book. Fifty Key Theatre Directors. A subjective list at best. Names like Stanislavsky, Bausch and Armfield appear.
A name not found in this book and even more likely to not be discussed at tonight’s NIDA Gala is the nameSteven Berkoff.
I had the pleasure of his company for a brief hour in the bistro of the Adelaide Festival Centre in 1994. I was in the middle of a directorial traineeship with South Australia’s State Theatre Company. Berkoff was there in rehearsal for his one man show. The memory of the conversation is vivid. We were introduced and he began to bluntly ask about why I worked in theatre, where I started and if my practice was informed by my connection to the land as an Aboriginal man. I lied and said it was, to which he seemed pleased. He advised me to get out into the desert more and seek creativity. I was so in awe that he would have me at his lunch table. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was not from a desert people. All I cared was that he was genuinely interested in me as an artist. I have been intrigued by his work ever since.
I was surprised by the reaction of a colleague at NIDA when I told them I had changed my essay subject to Steven Berkoff. ‘He’s a fucking Zionist.’, they snorted. This is, quintessentially, why he intrigues me. He polarizes people.
In various texts, be they newspaper articles, television interviews or books, Berkoff describes himself as somewhat of a transfigured director. On the one hand he speaks about his youth and the days of longing to get into the club, the theatrical clique. He became vehemently opposed to mainstream . Nowadays, he is ostensibly part of it. His participation in a Hollywood flop like The Tourist is as far away as any artist could get from their origins. On the BBC arts program Hard Talk, Sarah Montague questions him about his anger and hatred of current theatre. She boasts that last year British Theatre had its most successful year. Berkoff replies ‘No, that’s not true. Last year musicals were successful. The masses came to the theatre to see musicals. They are a valid art form, but they take up time in the big theatre spaces. A year, five years, ten years…all for one musical.’. Berkoff will not give in.
Why is Steven Berkoff such a polarizing force? Is this a deliberate choice on his part?
A Theatre of Extremes.
‘Mediocrity is not a crime, by no means. Most of you are mediocre, which is why you go to the theatre. To watch other mediocrities.’
The audience is given no quarter during a Steven Berkoff production. Having now seen him on stage three times, once for Tell Tale Heart / Actor/ Dog and twice for Shakespeare’s Villains, I can attest to being drawn in as Berkoff takes you to the limit of his performativity and commentary in his one man shows. In Dog I watched in horror as Berkoff portrayed a skinhead so in love with his pet bulldog that he began French kissing it. The mime kissing became extreme, Berkoff opening the jaws of the pet and passing himself through the canine, coming out the other end from dog mouth to dog rectum. All mimicry, all gross.
In Shakespeare’s Villains, the line from Richard the Third, ‘lascivious pleasings of a lute…’ is spoken by Berkoff while he mimes fellatio. His commentary on how political correctness destroyed his opportunity to play Othello is blunt and striking.
If his is a theatre of extremes then, to Berkoff, it is one surrounded by the theatre of the mediocre. Berkoff developed his theatrical form in direct response to his dislike of naturalism in British theatre, which was filled with bad acting in ‘…grim, plodding attempts to be natural.’ Berkoff’s minimalistic use of space steered well clear from the trickery of set designs and audience pleasing spectacles such as revolving stages. ‘What is lost on the stage is the entire space since the ugly monster sits like a great turd in the middle of the playing area….If I go to the theatre and see one of those things on a stage, my heart sinks, since there can be no art of the player, no choreography, since the director knows not that form’
I am intrigued by Berkoff firstly because his was an indirect route to becoming a director. From a poor immigrant family, Berkoff longed for purpose and escape. Having been rejected after auditioning for Olivier (who didn’t bother to show up) when the National theatre was being set up and being rejected sparked in Berkoff a fierce determination. His memoirs tell of years wandering through various branches of theatre. Acting, mime, directing for community theatre, movement study and eventually ending up in Paris where he found his aesthetic. Minimal set and pushing bodies to the extreme are Berkoff’s calling card. The heightened gestures, physical mechanics and the mixture of science with choreography are direct results of his time in Paris, having studied movement with Jacque LeCoq With this aesthetic Berkoff captured an audience for himself, with bodies in simplistic sets. The most stunning of which was the set and body design for Kafka’sMetamorphosis. ‘A skeletal framework of steel scaffolding suggesting an abstract sculpture of a giant insect is stretched across the stage.’ The stage is sharply lit, throwing shadows of the frame and the human body against the upstage wall.
Berkoff, The Master Self Promoter
The ability to develop a unique style of theatre that relies on only the voice and body in a time when musicals and spectacle began to dominate is the area of his practice I am most influenced by. To shun the conventions of your contemporaries and go it alone. This distinctive element of Berkoff’s work is what I find most compelling. The audacity of flagrant self promotion. Berkoff created, and still creates, an image of himself in the media. He has become known as the difficult guy to work with. Long before Christian Bale graced film sets with his tantrums, Berkoff was threatening his colleagues. His work at self promotion is informed by his decision to be creative in spite of his contemporaries. Building iconography around himself, he forged his own path in his day, mainly because those around him were wanting to put him into a box. Harry the actor, His fictional character from Berkoff’s book of short stories, Graft, is obviously autobiographical when read in conjunction with his official autobiography Free Association. His hatred for theatre critics is well known, partly because of his extreme reaction to them, ‘…insults, bannings, even a death threat.
Berkoff sees himself and his aesthetic as a unique product. Although he now has an agent he is still an independent artist, steering clear of submitting himself to any company that would dilute or pollute his vision. For that reason he is personally involved in his publicity. He controls the perception that the public and theatre community have of him. Rather than waiting to labeled, he is aggressive in his resolve to maintain his persona and set the record straight about his work when the odd critic has written a disparaging review.
Since image and publicity are forefront in his practice, Berkoff believes the image of Olivier is problematic for British theatre and British actors. Berkoff describes Olivier as ‘…the great statue that sits upon every stage.’, and Olivier’s Shakespearean reputation as Mountain Everest, telling how so many actors have attempted the climb and ended dead at the base of ‘…that great mountain.’. Olivier is problematic for Berkoff because of the perception that people have of Shakespeare and acting, as something that is sacred and available only to the few.
Berkoff’s attitude to publicity, persona and perception are of interest to me because I have struggled with a similar theatrical experience. Coming from a very poor background, being the only Indigenous family in a school of mostly British immigrants, I developed a keen awareness of difference. As I moved up through secondary school and discovered Shakespeare through Othello, I found that teachers were unwilling (or unable) to unpack these texts for me due to their perception that Shakespeare was not for the likes of me.
Pursuing a career in theatre was problematic for me in Australia, largely due to the constant attitude that as an Indigenous actor I was , and continue to be, offered parts that speak to my appearance. The image and perception of Aboriginality sits like a great statue on the Australian stage and screen. In auditions and interviews I am openly compared to other Aboriginal directors and find myself frustrated at the temerity of companies to even think that, just because I have the same heritage as Warwick Thornton or Wesley Enoch, I would want to follow their path of making specifically Indigenous film or theatre.
I have therefore had to shape my persona over the years, and have to do so with every theatre company or theatrical institution I work with. My application for NIDA did not appeal to any part of my cultural background, but at the interview for the directing course I found myself answering questions about whether or not I wanted to write Indigenous plays and would I be open to sitting in on the playwriting course as well. Recent tutorials here have also been problematic in that there seems to be very little effort to be factual about Indigenous history.
For each play and company I have been involved with, whether it be a Chekhov, Shakespeare or Nowra, I have had to work doubly hard to overcome the unuttered perception that I should be in a loin cloth for every production I’m in.
Not being able to escape these perceptions, I used it to my advantage. Like Berkoff, I decided to create my own shows and am involved in shaping the image that people have of me. It has become part of my practice to shape people’s perception of me. If I am considered a difficult person to work with then it will be for good reason. I do not accept mediocrity in my fellow actors when rehearsing. I do not accept the path of least resistance in directing. While I steer clear from strong remarks about other people’s performances, I will hold my ground and justify my own reasons for choosing a play or choosing a particular actor to work with. I have a handful of people that I trust, creatively and am always willing to jump in if I see an opportunity to be on a team with creative people who are better than me. It's the only way to learn. This can be difficult since my aim is to travel as far away from current Australian theatre practice as possible and shape my own identity and aesthetic, without having to ingratiate others to myself or, as Berkoff puts it, sit around the foyer and ‘…socialise with the luvvies.’
To return to my initial observation, I believe that Steven Berkoff has made a deliberate choice to polarize the theatrical community, due to its initial exclusion of him as a performer of Jewish heritage. This decision has served him well. I have yet to see whether my decision to polarize will benefit me in the same way.