As opinionated and uncompromising as ever,
STEVEN BERKOFF, the playwright-performer who once threatened to kill Nicholas de Jongh, has been soul-searching again. He tells Andrew Pulver about Jewish self-denigration, his hatred of
the petit-bourgeois and the necrophiliac state of British culture.
think the public has a peculiar taste for my plays.’ drawls Steven Berkoff. ‘Every now and then I push a new one out so that people can really see what a play is about. There‘s a period of sensory deprivation which allows the other guys to strut around with their limp offerings; I get a play on again, and put a piece of real theatre back on the stage.’ Modesty isn’t Berkost middle name, and in the end it's just as well. Never one to settle for very long on one spot, Berkost first production after the National Theatre run of his adaptation of Kafka‘s The Trial is Kveteh. a five~year~old play never performed in the UK before.
Kvetch (Yiddish for ‘nuisance‘) is a neatly-constructed satire on American social neuroses and fears. running private and public dialogues in parallel. The plot‘s run-of-the-mill incidents are charged with the weight oftragic and pitiful emotions as the stereotypes — husband, wife, friend and mother-in-law — are recast by Berkoff as figures of haunted emotional torment. ‘Kvetch came out ofwriting down every fear I ever had.’ he confides. ‘You write about what is the worst fear, the most amazing experience, most personal, most intimate, what you would be shy to tell even your shrink — that to me is the material oftheatre. The unspeakable. What should we put on the stage but what is execrable, unthinkable, awful — fantastic as well? That's what I saw when I was in LA: performance artists who would do obscene. revolting. disgusting things that also had great beauty. It made all mainstream theatre seem worthless.‘
In a way, Kvetch is Berkost response to America. It is the legacy ofa childhood trip and periodic Hollywood film roles. The ritualised confessionalism of American life. he explains, is the platform that the play stands on. ‘Because of the pressure-cooker atmosphere, it’s so intense there. Everybody is what they call kvetching, angsting, being pulled apart by different stresses and strains. They don’t have as many safety valves as we do here.
Also, rather obviously, Kvetch is Berkoff finally nailing his colours to a Jewish mast.
I He’s never been slow to analyse his cultural L background or adopt staging ideas from
ALL ABOUT EVE
traditional Yiddish theatre. but it has rarely found its way openly into his plays. ‘It‘s like coming out ofthe closet. Most Jewish playwrights — Wesker, Kops, whoever— they’re journalists. philosophers. not so much imaginative writers, except Americans like Philip Roth. They tend also to write about anything except Jews — they’re assimilated, why should they? Wesker does a bit, Pinter hardly at all. I had the idea it would be fun ifJews weren‘t seen as sweet and good. clean and kind, like those schmaltzy Italian plays that are so popular now. We mostly see the Jew in the context of the great victim, sweet. holy — haimishe in Yiddish — Neil Simony. I wanted to write a play about Jews as they are. like Roth or Jackie Mason might.‘ And in a touching moment of self-denigration. he adds: ‘There‘s still a lot ofshame around. Most Jews, including me. don‘t like to mention it. I’m English. that’s my upbringing. but if you scratch the surface you might come out with a little frightened Yidl. All the lines I’ve learned over the years. all the things to make myself ﬂexible and acceptable is just a facade of toughness. Because underneath that is a weak quivering little ghettoised Jew clinging to the wall. These things we inherit from our past. and if you dig deep enough you might find it.”
Some of the details of Berkoffs background are well known, part ofa modern mythology. The boy from Stepney who studied at Lecoq’s school in Paris, whose early ‘obsession’ with Kafka resulted in a trilogy of adaptations, and who achieved a major breakthrough with mock-heroic plays like East and Greek in the mid-705. His distinctive brand of theatre. both grotesquely physical and intensely wordy, is unique in Britain in its whiplash energy, its high-octane cocktail that draws direct inspiration from the pre-‘angry’ era: ‘1 was brought up on Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller. Their works suffused me with such intense feelings, a response to the level and power ofthe writing. I thought, this is a level I must attain. When I looked at the plays being written at the time, it was as if the earlier plays had never existed. The themes were
small. and dull. rather trivial. they were concerned with pent-bourgeois values. with i English snobbery — emotionally they were cut off. They were very perceptive in surveying the external world. but nothing in :' the core. Then Look Back In Anger came I out. I was already beyond it - everybody was raving about it. but I thought it watery. and embarrassing.‘ ;
The high emotion of the American classics and the melodramatic posturing ofcentral and eastern European performers have , provided Berkoff with the kind oftheatrical ; ambition not seen in any of his ' contemporaries. ‘We write plays about the aspects of ourselves we feel can be exposed.‘ ,‘ continues Berkoff loftily. ‘whether it‘s to do with political concepts or social themes. The i writer can happily develop a posture that serves morals. themes. ethics at us; and that‘s verygood. But there‘s another aspect in us that's rooted in fear. anxiety. stress. that’s very much a core feeling. I have always been one to lift up the stone and show what‘s crawling underneath. This was wilfulness, when I started writing. to write whatever was the subtext of my being, the core of myself.‘
Thank God for wilfulness, eh? This is why Berkoff will be remembered long after his contemporaries are mouldering in the
4 The List 23 — 29 August 1991