Earlier this year, an actor/writer took to the stage in an off-West End theatre for a demanding one-man show. It tackled an incendiary topic, and portrayed a character who – while still innocent pending trial – is no-one’s idea of lovable. The character was Harvey Weinstein. The actor taking on the challenge, and risking the wrath of the entire #metoo generation, was 81 years old.
This was an extraordinary development by anybody’s standards, but not so much if you have followed the nearly 60-year career of Steven Berkoff, a man who has never flinched from controversy or the depiction of male threat, moving with grace and menace from Shakespeare, verse drama and art theatre into the world of the Hollywood blockbuster.
Steven Berkoff was born Leslie Steven Berks in August 1937, son of Romanian/Russian Jews. Later, he rejected his father’s anglicisation of the family name and proudly readopted the original: Berkoff. After drama training in London and Paris, where he took a particular interesting in physical theatre, he began a career as a stage actor and dramatist.
His earliest plays were adaptations of Franz Kafka, a lifelong obsession, but then in the 1970s and 1980s he took a unique direction, creating harsh and vital dramas about the Jewish East End written in verse. They included East (1975), Greek (1980), which took its shape from Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex and later became an opera, Decadence (1981) and West (1983). They were a sensation: visceral, violent, and wildly divisive among theatregoers and critics. For a while, Berkoff became almost a household name. In Richard Curtis’s early romcom The Tall Guy, a hapless American actor played by Jeff Goldblum auditions for a Berkoff play called England, My England, in which skinheads swear at each other and kick over a table. Berkoff’s reaction to this ribbing is not recorded, but he has never been afraid of defending his own reputation. In 1996, he sued the controversialist writer Julie Burchill for libel. He won.
After the verse plays, Berkoff moved on to contemporary subjects, often political, and new slants on the classics. He created a slow-motion interpretation of Oscar Wilde’s Salome for the Gate Theatre, Dublin and the UK’s National Theatre. Later, his one-man show Shakespeare’s Villains was presented at the Haymarket, London. He also acted for several seasons in repertory at the National Theatre, taking major roles in everything from Moliere to Ayckbourn to Bulgakov to Alan Bennett.
While this maelstrom of theatre work was under way, he became a regular on British television, often playing unsavoury characters, and then moved into films made in Britain, including Stanley Kubrick’s legendary A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon, the James Bond classic Octopussy, The Krays and many more.
For a while, when it was essential for Hollywood villains to be British, he regularly took those calls. He was a corrupt art dealer in Beverly Hills Cop, a Soviet officer in Rambo: First Blood Part II, and also appeared in smaller films ranging from Prince’s Under The Cherry Moon to David Fincher’s remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. All the while, he maintained that the Hollywood work was to subsidise his theatre excursions, a viewpoint he expressed in a comic memoir, Bad Guy! Journal of a Hollywood Turkey (2014). Playing the ultimate villain, Adolf Hitler, in Herman Wouk’s 1980s mini-series, War and Remembrance, must have been a more personal satisfaction for this proud Jew and Zionist.
A 70thbirthday profile by The Guardian’s Michael Billington rightly characterised him as “the hard man with a sensitive soul”, and he has often clashed with critics. But that very sensitivity has been key to his ability to reinvent himself over the decades. One of his perennial topics is Shakespeare, and he has created stage shows on Shakespeare’s villains and on Ophelia. For the Cheltenham International Film Festival, he is presenting his recent film Shakespeare’s Heroes and Villains, for which he was director, writer and star. He wouldn’t have it any other way.