Steven Berkoff Q&A: “I’d like to live in the 1880s and mix with Oscar Wilde”

The actor and playwright talks the 1936 Battle of Cable Street, former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, and the 19th-century actor Edmund Kean.

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Steven Berkoff was born in London in 1937. He is known for his villainous roles including General Orlov in “Octopussy”; his 1975 verse play “East”, which deals with the violence of London’s East End in the 1970s; and his “total theatre” technique, a physical acting style that rejects naturalism.

What’s your earliest memory?

Grandma comforting me when the war sirens went off in the East End. “Close your eyes, the sandman’s coming.” A clever ruse, since I feared more the sand in my eyes than the frightening sirens.

Who is your hero?

The 19th-century actor Edmund Kean, who stunned London audiences with bravura performances, self-created and with no need of a director to impede his unique vision. He changed acting styles forever.

What book last changed your thinking?

An Attic Philosopher in Paris by Émile Souvestre, which shows how happiness can be achieved with so little.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Golda Meir, the prime minister of Israel from 1969 to 1974. She worked with immense inner conviction, intellect, power and intense compassion.

What would be your Mastermind subject?

The Battle of Cable Street in October 1936, when the East End Jews, aided by Irish dock workers, sent the sewer rats of fascism running.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

The late 1880s, when Henry Irving ran the Lyceum Theatre, to see his legendary performances and to mix with Oscar Wilde, Ellen Terry and Isadora Duncan.

What TV show could you not live without?

To watch Springwatch is to be made aware, in our self-obsessed, vainglorious age, of the sheer breathtaking wonders of nature, struggling to survive, mating and enjoying the simplest of lives with wild abandon.

Who would paint your portrait?

Salvador Dalí. I would love to see the inner person that he would discover.

What’s your theme tune?

Handel’s “See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes”. I used this for the entrance of Coriolanus returning triumphant from battle when I played him at the Mermaid Theatre in 1997.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

Breathe deeply, especially when anxious.

What would make your life better?

To see animal hunters behind bars for travelling abroad to fulfil their noxious and perverted need to prey on the defenceless.

When were you happiest?

When I wrote, directed and acted in my first production, Metamorphosis, at the Roundhouse Theatre in Camden in 1969.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

An architect, if only I had the immense technical skill. I would love to create wonderfully imaginative buildings, as Howard Roark did in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Of course, he was damned to poverty for his breathtaking originality.

Are we all doomed?

Never! In spite of our wretched animal killers, our dumb divorce from the greatest family of nations, our loathsome sex-obsessed billionaires, our religious-murdering fanatics, our lunatic dictators, there will always be a small core of inspired humans who will save us for the next millennium and beyond. 

The DVD of Steven Berkoff’s “Harvey”, his one-man play about Harvey Weinstein, is out now

This article appears in the 24 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Shame of the nation