Preview: Oedipus

Steven Berkoff manages to spare some time to tell Richard Smirke about his production of Oedipus

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Ever since he threatened to kill a critic several years ago it has become customary to begin any article on actor, director, poet and all-round polymath Steven Berkoff with a description of how menacing and intimidating he is as an interviewee. His answerphone message – a curt, slowly enunciated greeting in that distinctive nasal tone – certainly fits in with his image as a man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

The first five minutes of our subsequent conversation, during which Berkoff responds to an initial round of questioning with a series of rapidly spat out one word answers, also carries an air of someone who regards interviews as an irritating distraction to be completed as quickly as possible. The 73-year-old’s cold stance and abrupt manner does soften, however, when we get on to the subject of classical Greek tragedy – a form of drama that Berkoff has long admired and chosen to adapt and direct in a fresh production of Sophocles’ Oedipus.

“I’ve wanted to do Oedipus for some time. I’ve got a very strong feeling for Greek tragedy. There’s a feeling of intensity and descriptive and imaginative use to language which greatly appeals to me,” says the man best known for playing a succession of Hollywood villains in the 1980s, including Victor Maitland in Beverley Hills Cop and General Orlov in the 1983 James Bond film Octopussy.

The actor has previously dismissed his film work as “lacking artistic merit” and has gone on the record as saying that the only reason he took such roles was to fund the theatre work that has been his primary focus for over 40 years.

Much like his celebrated stage adaptations of Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe and more recently a West End run of On The Waterfront, Berkoff will not appear onstage when Oedipus calls at Liverpool Everyman Theatre, choosing instead to oversee proceedings from the sidelines.

The result, says the director with no degree of false modesty, is a compelling and visually arresting Greek tragedy unlike any other.

“I’m not saying mine is better than any of the others or worse. I would just say it’s very, very different to any other production of the Greeks I’ve certainly seen in England,” he declares, citing his distinctive use of a chorus and a stripped down approach to verse as two ways that this production stands apart.

“I’ve tried to use the chorus as inventively as possible. They respond to each other, feed off each other, reflect each other and bounce ideas from them,” explains Berkoff, who first adapted Sophocles ten years ago and revisited the story of a mythical king who kills his father and marries his mother for this year’s stage production.

“I also wanted to make the language very, very direct and straightforward – to get straight to the core of the scene and the essence of what the person is saying. Very often in translation, because Greek language is very elaborate, you have a lot of peripheral language before you actually get to what they’re bloody saying.”

Asked if he relates personally to the story of fierce ambition and blind arrogance, Berkoff, a fiercely idiosyncratic and determined individual, famously not lacking in self regard, calls Oedipus “a story of every man” that retains a universal resonance.

“Every man has fallen in love and sometimes it hasn’t worked or there’s been something in the way or some attitude from the outside world, and Oedipus merely is in love with his Queen,” continues Berkoff, who directs an impressive ensemble cast including Louise Jameson, Ian Drysdale, Vincenzo Nicoli and Simon Merrells in the title role.

“Yes. I do relate to it,” he continues.

“I think it’s a story of a real super human being who was courageous, accidently got caught up in the killing of his father who was very arrogant and pushed him out of the way. He was slain for his arrogance.”

Berkoff himself could be said to have been, at times, similarly slain for his arrogance throughout the course of a colourful career that’s spanned stage, screen and literature. Never one to mince his words or pick the easy option, he’s attracted as many critics as admirers during the past four decades.
Our interview ends in the same abrupt fashion that it began: him stopping mid sentence, saying “I’ve got another call” and hanging up.

I should be offended but I’m not. Compared with previous interrogators it seems I’ve got off lightly.

Oedipus is on at Liverpool Everyman Theatre from 18 February to 12 March.

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