O' Villain, Villain

British actor Steven Berkoff chats with 'The Jerusalem Post' about Shakespeare, theater today, and 'decaffeinated Jews.'

berkoff  88 298 (photo credit: )
berkoff 88 298
(photo credit: )
Villains, it would seem, are difficult to come by these days. At least that's the view of British actor Steven Berkoff, who has made a living playing evil characters both on stage and in film. Movie buffs will likely recognize him as the bad guy in Beverly Hills Cop, Rambo, and Octopussy. His intimidating looks and over powering presence has made him a shoe-in for the film arena's baddies. "I don't go for the roles of villains," Berkoff says, "they come to me." However, in his latest one-man show, "Shakespeare's Villains: A Masterclass in Evil," this theater maverick sought out the bard's greatest characters and decided to teach the world a thing or two about evil. The 70-year-old performer single-handedly dissects Shakespeare's most intriguing and villainous characters with wit and awe. Earlier this month, he stopped in Tel Aviv to present his show as part of the Cameri Theater's International Shakespeare Festival (which continues through June 6). He also met with up-and-coming actors in a bid to "bring a great sense of theatrical innovation to the stage." "[The show is] a kind of comic lecture, so to speak," says Berkoff. "The greatest actors in the world are cast as villains. The ordinary people are cast as humans," says the actor-director-playwright known for his arrogance and ego. "The villains are chosen for their intelligence and acting power. The paradox is that all the good guys play villains because they have the power and motivation. The normal actors like Julia Roberts and Robert Redford, for example, they're always nice guys. Villains need good people to play them." Considering he has been described as "a ferocious satirist," "a threatening persona," and "enfant terrible," it shouldn't really come as a surprise that he was attracted to the role of antihero. Berkoff says this one-man act came about at a time when he was doing a show with many actors and "it was becoming tiring to work with other actors." For nearly four decades, Berkoff has been entertaining audiences with his signature performance style which, he says, expands one's ideology and communication skills. He employs movement, mime, and rich language. Berkoff and his critics even refer to his own work as "Berkoffian." "The key to all theater is to act out rather than present sets. Movement gives you the possibility of expressing anything on stage and the audience likes it because they employ imagination," he says. "Movement is important, followed by the texts." It is not just a lack of good evil characters that sets Berkoff off , he also bemoans the state of theater today. "Theater today doesn't wake the spirit of the young. And when you don't have the spirit of the young, you don't have challenging theater," he explains. "Generally the audience tends to be bourgeois. They need to be catered to, but not so exclusively. The young stay away because the theater is old. You must challenge their minds to bring the young back to the theater." Since the late 1960s Berkoff has been a vital force in British theater. He spent the early years of his career carving a niche for himself on the fringe theater festival circuit. While he has moved towards the mainstream over the years, Berkoff still holds a soft spot in his heart for alternative performance. "When I have opportunity I put companies together and do things others aren't doing. There is nothing more powerful than a great actor on stage. Theater needs to be alive. If the theater has an open attitude it will bring in the audience, if it merely duplicates what movies or television does then it will waste away," he says. "We need to pay attention to street theater and alternative theater. Producers need to show a more friendly face to this type of theater, developing ideas, allowing these people to come in and express themselves on stage." In addition to staging "Shakespeare's Villains" here, the Jewish born Berkoff has directed several creations in Israel. While he readily admits that he doesn't know a great deal about Israeli theater, he has praise for local actors. "I've worked with Israeli actors, they are vigorous, dynamic, and articulate. There is creative and exciting acting here and lots of energy," he pronounces. His last visit here was seven years ago. Asked what changes he's noticed, he notes in all seriousness that the Gordon Swimming Pool is closed. "I used to see the most wonderful people there. How on earth did the municipality close down this jewel?! It was one of the joys of Israel. It makes me not want to come back to Tel Aviv and I've been coming here for 30 years," he rants. "It's not about the lack of a pool, but rather what's going on in the minds here that would allow the City to close down this landmark." He compares the swimming pool to the state of culture, noting that "not enough is being done for the people." When asked his impression of Israelis, he says, "I think it's an incredible society. You look at the people, the young women, astonishing beautiful." As Berkoff is known as a man unafraid to speak his mind, however contentious his opinion, it is somewhat less surprising when he suddenly attacks new immigrants and rich Jews who visit. "The visitors, the Israel lovers (olim), they're the ones to be wary of. They love Israel, but they smother it with an over love. They wear Israel like a flag when they're from New Jersey. I call them decaffeinated Jews...[insert mock American accent] because they ask for decaffeinated coffee. They like to come here, they bring money, and, well, that's important." Putting "decaffeinated Jews" aside, the Post asks Berkoff if he sees himself returning to our shores for another visit soon. He replies that he does not believe he'll return with "Shakespeare's Villains". But then, after a couple of minutes, he leaves open the possibility that he may indeed return, though uncharacteristically as the good guy. "All actors want to play the villains. They want to be Macbeth and Iago," he says. "I like the straight good guys now because they're simple. They have this transcendental belief in humanity that makes the hero great. I'm too old now to play the villain."