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Tuesday 11th November 2008
Feature | STEVEN BERKOFF | Connecting Conversations @ Hampstead Theatre

The pairing of Steven Berkoff with a renowned psychotherapist is an inspired idea, giving him the opportunity to discuss his favourite subject, Shakespeare’s villains. I saw Berkoff talk on this very subject a few years back, in a sell-out run at the Edinburgh Festival. Then it was a one-man show, with Berkoff alternately commentating on and impersonating his subjects, often to hilarious effect. This talk works rather differently, sticking to a prescribed formula in which Estela Welldon (the therapist) questions Berkoff about his passion and his work, with loose reference to psychology.

Berkoff is a magnetic performer, as charismatic in person as he is in any of the roles he’s played. Perhaps because of this, Connecting Conversations doesn’t suit him. He doesn’t like to share and isn’t a skilled listener, so he talks about whatever takes his fancy, while Welldon politely indulges him.

The evening’s formal segment (prior to the Q&A) is taken up with much gushing on Berkoff’s part about the great performers of old – Olivier in particular – and how these days we don’t know how to ‘do’ Shakespeare. He stresses that the key is total submersion, and that this can only be achieved by repetition. Today’s actors lack the necessary dedication, and directors are not giving them the space to breathe. This is a subject to which he returns throughout the evening.

When the chair finally drags the conversation back to its intended subject, things get a little more interesting. Berkoff outlines the relationship between sex and death, returned to again and again in Shakespeare’s writing. Is there an inherent link? Welldon’s clients often associate the two, and post-funeral sex is an oddly common phenomenon. Perhaps death highlights our need to procreate, or perhaps – as for Lady Macbeth – reverses it. She talks of being ‘unsexed’ in preparation for murder, her womanly need to bear children sacrificed to this greater cause.

A particularly macabre fact is that in the eighteenth century prostitutes used to gather at the scenes of public hangings, because it was there their services were most in demand. Welldon talks about the abuser becoming the abused, and Berkoff raises the issue of victimhood.

I would have liked to to see this conversation stretch across the whole evening, perhaps even extending into Berkoff’s own psyche and the ways in which he relates to the villains he plays. But no such luck. It’s Q&A time, and the audience have a lot to say about Berkoff’s perception of the actor-director relationship. Welldon sits there quietly, no doubt with many fascinating points to make, but no opportunity to make them.

It’s an enjoyable evening, because Welldon is so intelligent, and Berkoff so compelling. I don’t blame the chair for not trying to intervene – Berkoff is certainly a force to be reckoned with – but it would have been nice if the wealth had been more evenly distributed.

© Harriet Davis 2008

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