Mark Fisher talks to Steven Berkoff about a visual record of his twenty years in the teatre.
Two years ago on the Edinburgh Fringe. 1 took myself out to see a couple of student productions of Steven Berkoff plays. All the elements seemed to be there. the face-paint. the angular movement. the taut Cockney delivery. but somehow the productions came across as laboured and relentless. Yet seeing Berkoff in his own plays can be a refreshing experience — highly theatrical. accessible and often very funny. i presume this discrepancy can be put down to a misunderstanding of what Berkoff is all about. and it‘s the kind of thing that The Theatre a/‘Steven Ber/(off. a pictorial guide to his twenty years in the theatre. could help to put right.
‘I think that the pictures show a strong definition of the way that my theatre expresses itself and how it is a dynamic. sensory. visual experience.‘ says Berkoff. his unmistakable voice rasping with eloquent precision. ‘Most theatre tends to be non-visual and therefore the photographs get involved in character and personality. but I‘m
more involved in shape and form and space. My plays are not about specific real events. but emotional states.
‘I think when people do my plays. they often impersonate; when they play Iiast lind Cockneys. they become very gross. over-done East End Cockneys. When we first did East in Edinburgh. I played it in a Shakespearean style. playing with the language. with a slight accent. Therefore it was a highly- stylised musical town-boy. as opposed to the liast lind yobbish thing. It was classical. it was distancing and unless you give it the distancing it becomes a very muddy and over-indulged personality cult.‘
From the spidery. skeletal set of .WeIanan'phasis‘ and the Haunted sexuality of Iz'as‘l. to the cartoon mannerisms of Deeadenee. the book takes us through a unique career in physical theatre. which seems as novel now as it did two decades ago. ‘I don‘t think anybody will change and override that style.‘ says Berkoff. ‘I don‘t think anybody’s absorbed it yet. I think it's
still something of the future. The idea that painting gave up 100 years ago of using the body in a representational way. most theatre is still doing. 1 think people will stick to representational theatre as long as they feel enslaved by the word. The word manipulates and dominates people. People who are in charge of words are in charge of power and consequently critics tend to like Establishment theatre where there’s less expression of the body and more expression of the word. The body is the power of the people. The body is socialist. whereas the head is capitalist. So what you see in these photographs are explosions of power. They're all to do with ensemble work. group work. people's power.’
Using the work of a variety of photographers. the book celebrates not only theatre's visual aspect. but also the skill of those who capture it on film. ‘I think the key element a photographer needs is to have an eye for the temperature of the performance at certain peak levels.’ says Berkoff. ‘The good photographer has his eye on changes of mood and atmosphere. capturing something at its arc. the apotheosis or the nadir. Some photographers just go clonk. clonk. cloak and don‘t see where the centre of the energy is. It’s like being centred as a dancer. so you don't stick your arse out. Some photographers can take pictures of your work and it looks bloody awful and you think. Oh my God. we don't half look rotten. And then others take it and just have a feeling for it and then you look wonderful and you think. do we really look as good as that."
The Theatre afSIeven Ber/(riff Met/men £12.99.
_ Devilisth funny
At her aunts’ Passover supper, Jewish lesbian taxi-driver/fllm critic Rainbow Bosenbloom, normally 100 per cent tone deaf, finds herself singing the traditional songs in perfect harmony and perfect Aramaic. It’s her first inkling that she has become home to a dybbuk, name of Kokos, a Jewish demon appointed in the 18th century to carry out a 33-generation curse which started with Rainbow’s great- great-great-great-etc-etc- grandmother.
Unavoldably detained for a couple of centuries (trapped in a tree by a renowned Jewish cleric-exorcist) Kokos is keen to make up for lost time, and at first sets gleefully about her victim, disrupting her life in various upsetting and embarrassing ways. As Rainbow grows accustomed to being possessed, however, and as the independently-minded Kokos finds herself increasingly at odds with her corporate bosses at Mephistco plc, spook and subject get to kinda like each other. Then the undead spirit of the curse’s originator turns up, dissatisfied with Kokos’s handling of her brief, and things start to get even more complicated . . .
The above is a rough introduction to
Ellen Galford: ‘I like the feeling that you can leap tall world-views in a single bound.‘
Ellen Galford’s brilliantly kooky new novel, The Dyke and the Dybbuk, in which Jewish legend nestles cosily and crazily up with the notion of a diabolical supernatural multinational and with the life of a decidedly un- nice Jewish girl earning her crust in modern-day London. Galford, whose three previous books include the popular Moll Outpurse: Her True Story, is a Jewish-American who has lived in Scotland for over twenty years; a major starting-point for the novel, she says, was the desire to explore, albeit Iightheartedly, her Jewish heritage. ‘I am not theologically minded, I am not
a Zionist; I am someone who breaks all kinds of Jewish rules, but lam very definitely a product of a particular secular, dissident, but intensely Yiddish culture, and that side of my experience has always been very important to me.’
The novel’s breezy originality derives largely from its bravura mingling of the otherworldly with the everyday, something Galford particularly enjoys. ‘I like the feeling that you can leap tall world-views in a single bound,’ she says, ‘that you can mix your metaphors, your realities, your concepts, and having a supernatural element of character allows you that sort of free play.’
A warm, funny and hugely readable yarn, The Dyke and the Dybbuk succeeds exuberantly in escaping the genre ghettos of lesbian and Jewish fiction. Was this a challenge Galford was conscious of rising to meet? ‘I do think it’s important to break down walls,’ she says. ‘And I love the notion that ghetto walls have windows, and secret tunnels underneath; I think it’s important that we use them to subvert these rigid barriers, because boundaries kill people, these days.’ (Sue Wilson)
The Dyke and the Dybbuk is published by Virago at £5.99.
Ellen Galford will be reading from her work at Waterstone’s George Street branch and at James Thin’s, on 29 April and 5 May.
I like Water For Hot Chocolate Laura Esquivel (Doubleday. £6.99) Last-born daughter of a wealthy Mexican family. Tita is doomed by tradition to remain unmarried and take care of her tyrannical mother all her life. Outwardly submitting to this sad destiny. Tita devotes herself to the culinary arts. but discovers that the magical power she wields from the kitchen can extend far beyond winning a man‘s heart via his stomach. This ‘Novel in Monthly lnstalments with Recipes. Romances and Home Remedies‘. which topped the bestseller lists in Mexico for two years. is a marvellous romp combining fable. fantasy. kitchen lore and love-story. and featuring twelve traditional recipes as an added bonus. A fairly typical chapter entails Tita cooking quail in rose—petal sauce. using flowers given her by her lover (who is married to her elder sister). When the dish is eaten it proves to be such an immensely powerful aphrodisiac that her other sister. trying to take a cold shower to quench her unbearable desire. sets the shower stall on fire. Fleeing naked from the flames. she is intercepted by a revolutionary hero on horseback who instantly falls in love with her and carries her off. A colourful. full- blooded celebration of cooking and food. of love and passion. this is a tale to toast with the finest tequila. (Sue Wilson)
, var“ i
l Operation Shylock Philip Roth (Jonathan Cape £14.99) ()stensibly a confession of Roth‘s recruitment by Mossad. his twentieth book finds him recovering from a Halcion-induced psychosis and encountering his double in Jerusalem. an imposter using the writer‘s identity to preach Diasporism. the ‘de-Israelification of the Jews'. an exodus from lsrael to liuropc. Roth inadvertently receives a million-pound donation to the cause. beds the other Roth's girlfriend. mischievously espouses Diasporism himself. is kidnapped first by Arabs. then the secret police. and is pressured to meet with Arafat.
On one level. this is an absurd and funny yarn in which characters. incidents and motives are all called into question; identities are muddled. Jews fund the PLO. and nothing is what it seems. It is both 'non-fiction' and ‘a work of liction‘. Roth says. a ‘frivolously plotted' narrative ping- l pong in which he claims just to be the ball.
On another level it‘s a highly ambiguous statement on Jewish identity f and Zionism. on the clash between liberal pro-Palestinian sympathies and Jewish attachment to lsrael. Roth the imposter articulates views the author enjoys batting around. It's a story. he protests. over which he has ‘no authorial control’. That is frivolous. Operation Shy/ark is Roth at his cleverest. most controlled and most entertaining. ((‘athy B‘oylan) ;
The List ‘)--32i'ijii'il_l‘)t).i 67