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Steven Berkoff influences


Influences on Berkoff as a performer and as a playwright/director.

Laurence Olivier as Richard III

Laurence Olivier (1907-1989) was possibly the greatest theatre actor in Britain.  His acting and direction of Shakespeare such as Richard III and Henry V are considered definitive.  In the cinema he achieved matinee idol success in films such as Rebecca.  When Olivier died, his wife actress Vivien Leigh was in a season in the National Theatre and pulled out.  Berkoff was brought in to fill in the empty slots.  Berkoff's admiration of Olivier is apparent from his one-man show Shakespeare's Villains.

The image is from the film Richard III.

Edmund Kean as Shylock in Shakespeares The Merchant of Venice

Edmund Kean (1787-1833) was an actor Berkoff admired and someone he probably saw as a role model.  Like Berkoff, Kean had an under-privileged background and fought to establish himself in theatre.  Kean was a popular presenter of Shakespeare and combined passion with melodrama.  Alexandre Dumas wrote a play Kean about him and Jean-Paul Sartre did an adaptation of it.  Berkoff considered reviving the play.

Berkoff says "he had a power which no-one could approach... Why a lot of people, like myself, identify with him, is because he came up virtually from poverty, from nothing so to speak, working his way up, developing himself, learning as he went and with tremendous courage put himself at the forefront of theatre" (Steven Berkoff on youtube, 19 Oct 2010, click here).

In 2006 Berkoff paid homage to Kean by playing one of Kean's most successful roles, Mathias, in Leopold Lewis' play The Bells, in a charity performance in memory of Kean.

Steven Berkoff
Kean and Berkoff

Bertolt Brecht

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956).  The German playwright Brecht left Germany when Hitler came to power.  His plays show his anti-fascist stance, and were also innovative, in particular his Verfremdungseffekt (alienation effect) which Berkoff uses in East where actors destroy naturalism by, for example, addressing to the audience.

Image from the cover of Collected Plays 4, Methuen.

Antonin Artaud - Joan of Arc

Antonin Artaud (1896-1948).  Artaud appeared in Carl Dreyer's Joan of Arc in 1922 (above).  But it is his theoretical writing, the manifestos for a Theatre of Cruelty, which accounts for his immense influence on modern theatre.  Artaud wanted to move from staid structured melodrama towards a theatre reinvigorated by danger and cruelty, using the power of words and gestures to release emotions.  Berkoff followed Artaud and wrote his own Three Theatre Manifestos, and in the documentary Changing Stages Berkoff talks of the influence of Artaud.

Jean-Louis Barrault

Jean-Louis Barrault (1910-1994).  Barrault formed his own theatre company and developed his use of mime on theatre which influenced Berkoff when he founded the London Theatre Group.  Image from the cover of Barrault's Comme je le pense.

 Jacques Le Coq

Berkoff studied with Claude Chagrin, a pupil of Jacques Le Coq, and later briefly with Le Coq himself.  Le Coq's mime, movement, masks, and ensemble acting are all characteristic of Berkoff..

"Their mockery turned to tragedy in much the same way the violence of Steven Berkoff's writing achieves beauty" (The Moving Body, Jacques Lecoq with Jean-Gabriel Carasso and Jean-Claude Lallias, 1997 trans David Bradby 2000, III-2).  The image comes from the cover of the book.

Berkoff named his five favourite films as:

  • Cyrano de Bergerac.  The 1950 adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 French Alexandrine verse drama, directed by Michael Gordon with José Ferrer’s as Cyrano is epic.

  • Throne Of Blood.  Kurosawa’s 1957 version of Macbeth, starring Toshirō Mifune.

  • Koyaanisqatsi.  A 1982 film by Godfrey Reggio of slow-motion and time-lapse footage of cities and landscapes.  The music is by Philip Glass.

  • La Strada.  Fellini’s 1954 portrayal of simple Italian life. With Giulietta Masina and Anthony Quinn.

  • Carrie.  Directed by William Wyler in 1952 with Laurence Olivier.

(from The Metro, Amy Dawson -29 Mar 2012)

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