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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 by Berkoff.


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 men’s costumes were often modern? 1930’s 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 it’s 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 isn’t Berkoff’s 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 Berkoff, 77


Berkoff’s Sink the Belgrano is a venomous parody of the Thatcher administration’s 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

14 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 they’ve won, shaking in their boots at news of war, etc.? they were always plainly self-serving and cowardly (i.e. not warriors).


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 play itself.


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 play.


“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.” Author’s Note, The Collected Plays, Vol. I, 3


Something more obvious in Plutarch than in Shakespeare or Berkoff.

21 Free Association,1

Berkoff’s Coriolanus is a kind of Rambo given depth, dignity, and laughter? qualities not much found in Sylvester Stallone’s jingoistic movies. Since Berkoff actually had a minor role in one of these, perhaps his Coriolanus is, in part, a great stage actor’s supreme revenge on Hollywood.

23 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 Berkoff’s East and West.


Or did they? Homer’s account of the Achilles-Patroclus liaison is similarly sensual.


Wayne’s 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 Berkoff’s 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 Koestler’s 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 Shakespeare’s female creations” completely baffles me.


Another Shakespearean invention, evidently? Plutarch is mostly silent on Virgilia.


There’s a strong whiff of flattery to Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare’s 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 Shakespeare’s time, women’s 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 Shakespeare’s 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 autobiography’s 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.

41 Another of Shakespeare’s additions to Plutarch.
42 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, 1998)


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, 3/29/99


Copyright 2002 Ken Lauter
Included on the site with the kind permission of Ken Lauter.



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