all the sites
Free Association, An
Autobiography (Faber & Faber, London,
1996) 207, my italics.
See The Theatre of Steven
Berkoff (Methuen, London, 1992) for a
stunning photographic survey of 14 Berkoff
productions, with introduction and commentaries
At stage rear were
silhouettes of massive pillars, back-lit in dark
blue? the rest of the stage bare, with a marbled
flooring marked off with wide rectangular lines
representing streets, walls, etc. The only props:
chairs and the clubs brandished by the Roman mob.
The mens costumes were often modern?
1930s Italian? with Coriolanus at times in
a gray, pin-stripe suit, with knee-high black
boots, and at others in a long black leather
overcoat. Aufidius wore a metal-studded,
black-leather motorcycle jacket and matching
pants. (For female costuming, see below.) This
was dynamic physical theatre, with
the ensemble cast frequently engaged in vigorous
miming: doing needlework, chasing and mimicking a
butterfly, riding horseback, swinging swords and
clubs, pointing pistols, shooting arrows,
marching goose-step, sprinting, sliding, and pub
carousing. The carnival effect was brilliant.
The young Berkoff once chose a
tirade from Coriolanus for an audition
speech. - Free Association, 64
Steven Berkoff: The
Collected Plays, Vol. I (Faber and Faber,
London, 1994), 3
Perhaps its never been
much more than a euphemistic ploy by the warrior
caste to rationalize itself? both to itself and
those who have to pay for it? but that isnt
Berkoffs concern here.
Of his production of Agamemnon,
Berkoff says: It is... about heat and
battle, fatigue, and the obscenity of modern and
future wars. - The Theatre of Steven
Berkoffs Sink the
Belgrano is a venomous parody of the Thatcher
administrations motives and conduct in that
war? which, at bottom, are shown not to
have been warrior-like but cravenly
political and cowardly.
Free Association, 118
It is sweet and fitting
to die for your fatherland.
I Am Hamlet
(Faber & Faber, London, 1985), 207, 118, 116
The Lion and the Fox,
quoted in The Signet Classic Coriolanus
(New American Library, NY, 1966), 272
An Approach to Shakespeare,
Vol. II (Anchor Books, NY, 1969), 244
||Op cit., 273, 277
In Shakespeare, the tribunes
are mere foils to Coriolanus, but Berkoff brought
them to an intense dramatic autonomy? one (Tam
Dean Burn) speaking in a thick Scots brogue, the
other (Michael Jenn) in a vaguely Welsh accent .
But although they stole a number of scenes from
sheer theatricality and were great fun in the
play? skulking around like wacko detectives in
long trench coats at times, getting drunk when
they think theyve won, shaking in their
boots at news of war, etc.? they were always
plainly self-serving and cowardly (i.e. not
As the play wore on, a strange
mixture of revulsion and awe crept over the faces
of some very stiff-upper-lip-looking Brits in the
audience. This was almost as good a show as the
This notion is not given much
credence in the play? it is really only a red
flag waved by the tribunes.
Imagine an Othello who could
do so? it would totally alter the nature of the
In the East End of youth
as I remember... you said what you thought and
did what you felt. If something bothered you, you
let it out as strongly as you could, as if the
outburst could curse and therefore purge whatever
it was that caused it. Authors Note, The
Collected Plays, Vol. I, 3
Something more obvious in
Plutarch than in Shakespeare or Berkoff.
is a kind of Rambo given depth, dignity, and
laughter? qualities not much found in Sylvester
Stallones jingoistic movies. Since Berkoff
actually had a minor role in one of these,
perhaps his Coriolanus is, in part,
a great stage actors supreme revenge on
||Op cit., 279
Plutarch (in the North
translation) contradicts this, saying Coriolanus
takes a few men in with him.
This note of erotic delirium
in combat is even more pronounced in
Berkoffs East and West.
Or did they? Homers
account of the Achilles-Patroclus liaison is
Waynes status as an icon
of manliness surely depends heavily
on his great womanly gentleness? his
real name was Marion, after all!
Incidentally, Wayne is noted explicitly in
Berkoffs West - Beneath it all
you wanted to be a hero with your dukes... To
emulate John Wayne. The Collected Plays,
Vol. I, 85
Greetings on stage are
wonderful events to act, says Berkoff in
his I Am Hamlet, 170
In the Mermaid production,
Aufidius was played with great verve and
dexterity by Colin McFarlane.
Some men simply freeze up,
others soil themselves, some go mad. They are not
cowards, however; they merely have a
different neuro-hormonal mix than do
warriors? whose value the patriarchy
has grossly inflated.
Regulated primarily by the
hypothalamus, one of the oldest, most primitive
parts of the brain, and which is in fact called
the snake brain in the Papez-MacLean
theory. Cf. Arthur Koestlers sadly
neglected The Ghost in the Machine.
Similar, it must added, to
that which heterosexual lovers can also know all
too well when love turns into hate.
Why Ruskin found Virgilia
perhaps the loveliest of Shakespeares
female creations completely baffles me.
invention, evidently? Plutarch is mostly silent
Theres a strong whiff of
flattery to Queen Elizabeth I in
Shakespeares Volumnia? played in this
production with grace and gravity by Faith Brook.
After all, whether Roman
mothers breeding sons for war, or Apache women
torturing captives, or well-bred English ladies
handing young men the white feather of cowardice
to shame them into muddy death in the trenches?
women can be as fully engulfed in patriarchal
madness as any man.
This disparity is represented
in religious iconography going back at least four
millennia to ancient Sumer, whose goddess-queen
Inanna was the supreme figure, dominating the
king-consort Dumuzi in all things? including her
warrior spirit. In Egyptian myth, the
queen/mother Isis was sometimes represented in
sculpture as many times larger than king/son
Isis. The same thing persisted in
madonna-and-child art in the Christian era. Now,
unfortunately, sons are still all too often
thought of (if only subliminally) as socially and
spiritually larger than their mothers? a dreadful
fiction which we all pay for daily and which, I
believe, Shakespeare and Berkoff, each in his own
way, deeply laments.
Recalling his East End youth,
Berkoff writes: One strutted and posed down
the Lyceum Strand, the Mecca of our world,
performed... rituals that let people know who and
what you were. The Collected Plays,
Vol. I, 3
I have ignored one immensely
complicating factor in my gender analysis? in
Shakespeares time, womens roles were
played by men or boys. The mirror-within-mirror
effect thus created vis-a-vis the warrior-boy and
manly-mother of Coriolanus may have been
quite important in Shakespeares vision of
the play. (Although I have no historical basis
for saying so, I believe Shakespeare would have
preferred to cast women as women.)
Is Berkoff ambivalent about
this? In Free Association, he suggests
that the murderous Kray brothers intense
love of their mother is pathological; on the
other hand, the autobiographys opening
section, Breakfast with Ma, is a
tender memoir of his visits to his mother when he
was a struggling young actor. Moreover, in Greek,
his retelling of the Oedipus myth, Berkoff comes
up with a radical and hilarious
solution to the problem Freud so
grimly inserted into bourgeois culture.
||Another of Shakespeares
additions to Plutarch.
||Free Association, 1
Selected Essays of T.S.
Eliot (Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., New
York, 1964), 107
Shakespeare: the Invention
of the Human (Riverhead Books, New York,
Coriolanus in Deutschland
(Oxford, Amber Lane, 1992) and I Am Hamlet
(Grove Weidenfield, New York, 1988). He has also
written and produced a Hamlet spin-off, The
Secret Love Life of Ophelia.
|Blood, sweat, and
Berkoff, The Sydney Morning Herald,
Copyright © 2002 Ken Lauter
Included on the site with the kind permission of Ken