Steven Berkoff is no stranger to the limelight. At 81 the actor, playwright and theatre director shows no sign of slowing down. Currently he is working on a one man, one act play based on the recent #MeToo allegations against disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. But his most recent film, a perilous journey through some of Shakespeare’s most notorious creations, shows that there is much more for the ‘enfant terrible’ still to say.
This confrontational aspect is crucial to the man’s work. Indeed, it has served him well enough to earn him the nick name of one of the ‘bad boys of British theatre’, a moniker which endeared him to Hollywood casting agents in the ’70s and ’80s. On screen he has fought James Bond, John Rambo and Axel Foley, on stage he has brought his brash physicality to many of the great roles, notably his work adapting Shakespeare.
His continued fascination with getting under the skin of the corrupt and the powerful will have been a factor in his recent film Shakespeare’s Heroes and Villains. The film won Best Documentary at the Cheltenham International film festival recently, and provided a highlight of the executive producers Red Rock Entertainment film festival news. Here’s the trailer,
Now that we’re deep in Film festivals 2019 season, it’s a chance to see a far more varied range of films on the big screen. The Cheltenham International Film Festival award for Berkoff’s latest will hopefully bring the actor’s charismatic bellicosity to a wide audience. This is certainly proving the case for Claire McCarthy’s latest film, Ophelia, which tells the familiar story of Hamlet from the perspective of his doomed love Ophelia. It played extremely well at Sundance and has garnered solid film festival reviews across the world. Like Berkoff’s film McCarthy’s latest takes a fresh look at some of the most enduring characters in the Bard’s work.
Berkoff is himself something of a master of reinvention, and there is something about the fierce propulsion of his career, even in its seventh decade, which compels his audience. His self-imposed status of outsider has enabled him to reach out to people who may not consider the theatre to be for them. In conversation with The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner two decades ago Berkoff opined, ‘Anyone of any quality feels like an outsider’, and this tenet plays itself out once again in his work.
Along with the eye of director Stephen Cookson, Berkoff’s take on the Bard’s baddies has something of a personal element to it. When you dedicate your life to bringing such energy to some of the greatest parts any actor can take on, your own understanding of the roles are greatly imbued with experience. It makes sense that his take on Richard III or Macbeth will have greater weight having played them. In 1980 at the Roundhouse in London, Berkoff directed and took the lead role in Hamlet, which was, in his own words, staged with ‘utter simplicity’. Twenty-nine year later, he calls the ruminative Dane a ‘student villain’. Who could disagree?
With Berkoff you have the essence rather than the granduer. In taking on the Bard’s greatest characters he imbues them with a lifetime of treading the boards, unmasking them as players in his own life’s work. There are few others who could do the same.