Steven Berkoff is what many would consider a theatrical purist. For a devotee of his particular bent, there is perhaps no greater joy, or challenge, than in sinking one’s chops into a canonical Greek tragedy. Written now 2,500 years ago, the classical Greek plays — mainly those of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes — were, and remain, the end-all-be-all of what all theater aspires to, and, not incidentally, what many who work in theater even today aspire to. For someone like the classically trained Berkoff, whose storied career in film, television, and on the stage stretches back to the 1950s, putting his imprimatur on a work like Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is a little like a paleontologist getting the chance to study a living Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Let’s get one thing out of the way immediately: Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, in pretty much any incarnation, is not first date material. It may not be date material at any stage of a relationship. One certainly should think twice about taking one’s mother to see it. Fathers may not care for it much, either.
There’s a hackneyed bit of conventional wisdom that says creative expression in the modern era inexorably tracks along an upward axis toward ever more shocking, barbarous, and boundary-pushing content. But that’s rubbish. The Greeks were pushing that particular envelope millennia before the modern-day movie shockmeisters and Splat Packers were even twinkles in studio execs’ eyes.
But in doing so, the Greek playwrights had more on their minds than stupefying and appalling audiences with their disregard for boundaries of taste and decency. Their motives were, one might say, more pure. Like Shakespeare 2,000 years later, the great playwrights of classical Greece knew that to truly take the measure of a man, plumb what it means to be human, and weigh free will against the tyranny of fate, an author must first lay a protagonist out on the operating table, cut away everything extraneous except that which is needed to keep the heart beating and the tongue moving, and then put him in an impossible situation from which the only redemption can be a clawing upwards toward a full awareness of his path and his plight.
Granted, this sounds a lot like the plot of most of the Saw movies. The difference between torture porn and much of Greek tragedy isn’t as great as many might think, until you take into account the bogeyman of bad filmmakers everywhere: character. For at the end of the day, it’s not the punishment that matters — regardless of whether it’s inflicted by Jigsaw or Zeus — it’s the redemption we’re there for.
“I’ve always been fascinated by this play, since it has one of the most remarkable plots in world drama,” says Berkoff of Oedipus. “Also the most shocking.”
In taking on one of the Western canon’s most revered and iconic works, Berkoff draws upon a career as an actor, director, author, and playwright than spans half a century. The London native’s first appearances on the big screen were small roles in two now-classic films: the Stanley Kubrick-helmed A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon. In the ’80s he set the bar for ice-cold villainy in roles like the rogue General Orlov, who plots to launch a war in Europe in Octopussy (1983), as a drug smuggling art dealer gunning for Detroit narcotics officer Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop (1984), and as a sadistic Russian commando officer torturing Sly Stallone in Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985).
He’s appeared in dozens of film and television roles since then, both in the U.S. and England: Dr. Who, Showtime’s The Borgias, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and most recently the American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, in which he played Dirch Frode, Lisbeth Salandar’s ersatz employer. Berkoff has even lent his singular baritone and voice acting talents to video games (2004’s Killzone, 2007’s Heavenly Sword).
But it is in the theater where Berkoff has truly distinguished himself. His original stage plays include East, West; Messiah: Scenes from a Crucifixion; The Secret Love Life of Ophelia; Decadence; Harry’s Christmas; Massage; Acapulco; and Brighton Beach Scumbags. He has performed his trilogy of solo shows — One Man, Shakespeare’s Villains, and Requiem for Ground Zero — in venues all over the world. He directed and co-starred with Joan Collins in the film version of his play Decadence.
There are also Berkoff’s books, of course, among them the theatrical production journals I Am Hamlet, Meditations on Metamorphosis, and Coriolanus in Deutschland. Berkoff’s travels around the world resulted in Shopping in the Santa Monica Mall: The Journals of a Strolling Player.
“Theater is a much purer form and closer to the essential talents of the actor,” Berkoff says of his preference for working the footlights over the film set. “Also, it’s live and creates a ceremony with the audience.”
That sense of ceremony, as Berkoff calls it, is something he takes very seriously. For those of his disposition, the contract between audiences and theater performers is far more than one of a couple of hours of enjoyable distraction and box office receipts. He makes no effort to hide his contempt, for example, for the popular Broadway and West End strategies of casting big-name television and screen celebrities in order to draw audiences. Film stars “debase the currency” of theater, he says. In fact, Berkoff scoffs at the idea that a stage production’s success can be measured in any legitimate way by its box office muscle. “To pull the crowd,” he has said, “is to sink to the level of the mob.”
Few would call Oedipus an exercise in mindless escapism. Nor is Berkoff’s new staging a mere translation of Sophocles’ original work from 2,500 years ago. The producer-director, who also stars in the production as King Creon of Thebes, has rewritten the story of Oedipus entirely in iambic pentameter. “It gives a good rolling sound and rhythm to the language,” Berkoff says.
Many have noted that Berkoff’s intensity as an actor is often mirrored in the intensity of his stage productions. The director is renowned for a distinctive physical style and a near-obsessive dedication to the details of acting and production in his works that he calls “total theater,” an approach that eschews “peripheral affectations” like video screens, props, and other distractions.
“Total theater means the total use of the actor’s personal physical machinery. His mind, his body, his muscle, and his voice.”
Oedipus is presented at Spoleto by England’s acclaimed Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company — they last appeared in the festival in 2008 with The Burial at Thebes, another modern retelling (by Ireland’s Seamus Heaney) of one of Sophocles’ three Thebian plays.
“The theater,” Berkoff has said, “is a temple.” If so, this week it’s a Mayan temple, a site of bloody, depraved horror, but also of enlightenment. Whether Spoleto audiences are in the mood for a religious experience quite that traditional is a question that might stump Sophocles himself.