Q&A with Steven Berkoff

A scene from "Oedipus," directed by Steven Berkoff.

Helen Warner

Steven Berkoff knows no barriers when it comes to communicating his message. Speaking from his U.K. home over Skype, the director, adapter and costar of Spoleto Festival USA’s production of “Oedipus” alternated between championing drama and lambasting what he saw as the sources of its corruption.

Berkoff’s working-class childhood in London’s East End and his professional training in mime inform his original and adapted stage works. Among his adaptations are “Metamorphosis,” which appeared on Broadway in 1989 starring Mikhail Baryshnikov, and “Oedipus,” which originally was staged by the Nottingham Playhouse Theater Company in the U.K.

American audiences might recognize Berkoff from his appearances in the movies “A Clockwork Orange” and “Rambo.” He has a penchant for portraying villains, aided by a booming voice that serves the artist well.

The following is a condensed version of the interview.

Q: What’s the most significant aspect in your process of adapting classic works to make them relevant for today?

A: You have to read it until the key elements leap out at you. There are kinds of various critical moments. As you keep reading it, those moments seem to gradually surface in your mind and you start working on those moments. Gradually, you fill in the structure, the superstructure of the play. I would take an impossible subject like “Metamorphosis”: How did the man change into a beetle? That’s a hell of a thing to do and why very few people have tackled it.

Q: What was the key element for you in “Oedipus?”

A: The key for me — I worked on it in workshops — was the fact that it’s Greek. I (took) a photograph of a Greek taverna of a group of men in cloth caps singing, talking, eating together. I thought, “This is ‘Oedipus.’” It’s a group of men at a table, and that’s how I staged it.

Q: A couple of British reviews mentioned how the table in your production looked like the Last Supper.

A: Oh, yes, they always say something like that. When a group of men, particularly Mediterranean men — Italian, Greek, Spanish, French — (are on stage,) there is a camaraderie and a need for each other to support and help and nourish. My play and my production (portrays) the way men nourish, help and secure the happiness of each other.

When you see Shakespeare productions, you very rarely see any camaraderie because the directors are not reflecting that. I see the leading actor, whether it’s Richard II, Hamlet or Henry V, doing his lines, working with another leading actor, and the rest of the cast are just standing in the back with a spear in their hands because they don’t support the actors. The director doesn’t know how he can use them to support the actors. They’re left a bit bereft, on the outside like satellites floating in space. Whenever I see this, these seedy productions, my heart sinks.

Q: Do you feel there is a difference between American and British audiences?

A: All audiences are slightly different in some ways. But when I played for American audiences in New York, I found American audiences a little more receptive. I think it’s not that they’re more generous than the English, but the English sometimes are more reticent.

Q: Are American audiences more open to nontraditional forms of theater?

A: I think there are two different audiences in America. You have the ho-ho audience who laughs at everything. It’s a simple-minded audience that really likes a very broad, Neil Simon-type humor. I find that it’s a bit too easy. But there’s another American audience that’s very sophisticated and very demanding, and very smart. There are all sorts of audiences.

Q: You’ve been very critical of Hollywood stars acting on stage.

A: They’ve been spending too many years in a long trailer stepping out to do a few takes and stepping back into a long trailer to have a cappuccino. They think, “Oh, my God, wouldn’t it be wonderful to do some silly play” — and with terrifyingly bad results. Some are good, but usually not so.

Q: What’s your next project?

A: I’m doing a play at the end of Edinburgh Festival [Fringe] called “An Actor’s Lament,” which covers many of the thing’s we’re talking about. It’s a verse play. I’d like to take it to New York. I’d like to play New York once again.

Zach Marschall is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.