Maverick Steven Berkoff on his Messiah

26th November 2003



The maverick playwright talks to Rachel Halliburton about his controversial Messiah, the critics he reviles and what he’d do if he ran the National Theatre.

You go to the theatre and you see the same boring, dreary directors – the general standard is really bad.


INTERVIEW: STEVEN BERKOFF The maverick playwright talks to Rachel Halliburton about his controversial Messiah, the critics he reviles and what he’d do if he ran the National Theatre.

Recorded: 26 November 2003

Transcribed by the V&A © This transcript is copyright of the Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If you wish to refer to this in publication its reference is INTERVIEW: STEVEN BERKOFF and you must quote the url in your address bar.

Rachel Halliburton: Steven Berkoff, first of all can I say thank you very much for agreeing to talk to TheatreVOICE. Can I start, first of all, by asking you to explain to listeners of TheatreVOICE what you’re doing: it’s quite a radical retake on the gospels, your Messiah. Can you explain, what made you decide to do it in this way?

Steven Berkoff: Well the Messiah is based on many different aspects and influences that have come to me during my life, and also from my fascination for events that are quite dramatic and cataclysmic, and that have changed our society. So, I’ve always been interested really in Jesus and what he represented, what he stood for, and over the years there’s been a great deal of research done into the past to re-examine what he is, and who he is, and what he stood for. So as a dramatic figure, one cannot help but be involved, and fascinated by the various stories told about him. One of the curious things about this figure, as opposed to any other figure that we may study in history, whether it is the life of, you know, the Aztecs, or Henry the fifth, or Richard the third, is that all research is welcome, and that we enjoy it and we’d like to change history and we like to get to the core of the being that may have been covered up at the time by political intrigue, or historical necessity, and now we’re quite capable and able to kind of go into our research and find, and clear up, what it means.

But however, as a religious figure, this is, or has been, a kind of taboo area, and the thing about faith, which is a two-edged sword; from the one area it gives you a tremendous hope and belief in something, and a willingness to sacrifice yourself for something that you have a strong identification with, and that you can believe in and that will improve the state of the world and you won’t have any criticism because this is your faith. The other side is that this covers up truth, covers up the actuality. Before faith there was an existing thing. Before it developed into history, myth, deification, there’s an essential, basic truth, and that truth is as holy as anything that developed afterwards. You must go to the root. So I was fascinated as a writer of what it must have been like to be on the cross, so I started writing a kind of a fictionalised, fictionalised account of a person being tortured, say under the Greek Colonels, or under the Nazis, what it was like to be, to feel, see his hands swelling up, to be dying, to be dying of thirst, to be facing looking at the sun on the cross, and being tortured, seeing his friends looking up and his mother, so that’s how it started.

RH: Because some people who haven’t seen it could accuse it of being quite a cynical take in that there is a sense that Jesus wasn’t the Son of God, he was an opportunist who used the text of the Old Testament as a way of gaining influence and, gaining mythologisation, which, you know, really he didn’t deserve. I mean, when you see it I think it’s not a cynical exercise at all. Can you explain to me why?

SB: Well because, when I first wrote it, I started to kind of write a kind of an imaginary account, but as I came across several books, and they all had a rather similar theme that the Old Testament is really a kind of guide book; it was used at the time not as a book of history only, but as a way that the prophets could insert their own vision, their prophecies, and over the centuries, and many centuries, rabbis would search through and find themes, and find sayings, that pointed to the arrival of a Messianic figure that would relieve them, that would take them out of bondage. And so the idea of finding once again, you know, a sanctuary and finding somebody who would do this has been what they’ve been waiting for, for like a thousand years or more, so they’re waiting for this; now they’re under Roman occupation it is stronger than ever, the reading of the Old Testament becomes more fervid than ever, now they’re really waiting, and at that time it is prophesied, when certain stars are in a conjunction, the Messiah will come.

Well, at that time, many young Jewish zealots, idealists, young boys, wanted to be the Messiah. Their mothers and fathers would talk, “Oh one day the Messiah will come, and he will rescue us,” and so it was imbued in them, even from their early childhood, perhaps, to contain and to dream about this thing. So you’ve got this young man, who was quite idealistic, and he becomes a rabbi, he’s ordained, he’s taught in the rabbinical school, and he sees himself as the potential for this. And he thinks that only if he could be the Messiah, he could unite and bring together all the kind of the different factions that are existing in Israel (which happens under occupation, people become more split up, as each group decides it is best to, maybe, as the Pharisees compromise with them until the time will come). Or the Sadducees say, “Well, maybe a compromise but we must break away.” Or the Essenes, who have gone into the desert completely. And another group, who are the zealots, saying, “Only revolutionary activity can possibly rid this Roman scourge.” And so he thinks we’ve got all these different people, so, if he could somehow become what the people want, if he could really take on the messianic role, he could do this.

So he forms this idea, he’s a rabbi, he’s a rebel-rouser, he’s charismatic, he’s dynamic, and, he thinks the only thing to do is to, in a way, become the Messiah by fulfilling the scripture. And many of others, he wasn’t the only one. And so, he had to fulfil scripture to the letter. And so what he did, he, in order to do these things; he made certain statements which are still in the New Testament, where the New Testament has completely whitewashed Jesus or has, in a way, emasculated him to the extent that they’ve taken away his revolutionary zealot, personality, and made him into a more of a Ghandi-like preacher, preaching peace, turn the other cheek, do all these things, but they weren’t necessarily his words. A lot of those words are, actually come from Isaiah, but he’s been put together afterwards to appease Roman occupation.

At the time, you’ve got this young man, and he knows he’s got to come into Jerusalem on a white ass, because of this prophecy; so, at the Jerusalem gates there’s a guy with white asses, because there’s loads of guys coming in, and saying, “Hey look, I’m the Messiah,” because it becomes such an apparent thing that there were a lot of them were laughed at. You see the ultimate test for gaining the belief, I believe, of the Jews, was to prove you can rise from the dead, and then that’s the ultimate trick. So, Jesus in a sense was a precursor of the long line of Jewish magicians, leading up to Houdini, and David Blaine. That, only by doing this, could he prove, and he was this amazing trickster, he was a kind of trickster, but very, very, still, religious, political, and a revolutionary, so it’s a strange combination.

RH: Three years ago you staged this at the Edinburgh Festival, and it was indeed commented on in reviews that you’d refrained from acting in it yourself, and The Guardian, I think, praised you for that. Now that it’s appearing at The Old Vic, you are appearing onstage as Satan. Can you describe to me, or can you explain to me, why you changed your mind?

SB: Well, I always feel that it’s a little bit difficult playing in plays which I’m directing, because if I start getting worried about my performance then I’m giving less time to the actors, and therefore I want to be with them, be there for them, help them express themselves, but that’s why I didn’t do it in the past. Having had it on, I started learning it anyway, and as I was learning it I felt very, a kindred spirit to it, and I thought, “Why deny myself this opportunity?”, because it felt natural to me to play Satan. I, it expressed the feelings I had, that he wasn’t such a bad man but he was really standing for fulfilling your temptation, and that’s what he was about. But I still wasn’t that keen, but in order to get it on, there were also commercial considerations, that the producers thought that I have a little bit of a draw with young people, and that they want to see me, and though I had, I’ve got, a star actor playing Jesus, Greg Hicks, leading actor in this country now, leading classical actor, but everybody said, “Oh you should play, say you will help,” and this, that and the other, and I was reluctant, and eventually I said, “Yes”, and it’s been a very, very painful time because as we get nearer the event, I’m starting to think, “Oh God, how am I going to play this?” It seemed easy to play but I’ve found it difficult.

But now I did it, and I did it last night, so it seemed to come off, and I’ve directed it as if this was a holy piece, and the Last Supper, I’m sitting, sometimes, and I’m watching it, I feel I’m watching, I’m in a church. It sometime moves me so much. Last night I was waiting to go on as Satan. My first night at the Vic, very historic night, and, waiting to go on I was just sitting and pacing up, in the dressing room, looking in the mirror, trying to be Satan: how am I looking? And then I thought I’ll go in the box, and I’m just watching and it relaxed me, and I saw them just do, you know, a scene, when the prostitute bathes Jesus’s feet in oil, and it’s so… And of course we had deeply religious music by Mark Glentworth, his music is actually inspiring, it’s phenomenal, and so that was the key. The key is that the production itself, dealing in a spiritual theme, should also be spiritual in its production values, in the ritual of the play, and that’s what I wanted, this has been my most spiritual play. It belongs in a church; there’s some vulgar words, the dices, they swear when they play — “and let’s throw the fucking dice” and all that — but that that that’s the theme. The theme should be religious, and taken with music, and with the idea of painting, and now I’ve noticed other people do this a little bit, and I was quite interested to see Bill Viola, the video artist, as he says Jesus there’s or the person’s dying they do in very slow motion, and we do that, well in fact we did this before I ever saw Bill Viola. So that’s how I, that was my source.

RH: One of the reasons we’ve set up this website is that of course we want to have theatre practitioners responding to the critical community, and you have famously lashed out in the past against your critics, and it’s frequently quoted that you sent a death threat to my boss Nicholas de Jongh, for his review of your Hamlet. Can you just talk to me a bit about how, where you think the critical community stands now, and how useful you feel they are?

SB: Well, you know, I respect the critics’ stand. I have only the highest regard for them. I think they are the messengers, but some messengers are no good. I mean, you know that yourself, that you might get a message and then, you know, somebody who delivers another message is kind of fumbly, half-drunk, uninformed, stumbles along the way: you don’t get the message. You get a message which is filtered through prejudice, anger, self-loathing, ignorance, total lack of education, lack of understanding of methodology, and then, you get this message. Now, very often, you know, it really does annoy me, doesn’t upset me, annoy me, is an anger, because the message is corrupt. I’m not talking about getting a bad review: if I’ve done something bad I’ve got some bad reviews, I, well, you take it on the chin, although I think they’re wrong because I don’t think anything I’ve ever done is bad, because, you know, it’s like, frankly you know you get a painter, when he paints, and then once he’s successful people don’t say, “Oh the next one’s lousy, oh this one’s good.” That’s who he is. I’ve established a style and that’s what I do, and how can one be bad, one be good, one be, it’s like, this comes from the same source, if you like, so it means there’s some misunderstanding.

The methodology I use is, what we call in a way ‘fusion theatre’; I embrace the idea that the real and true actor is a physical being who is expressive in body, and that that body is as much part of his technique, as his voice, his imagination, but words seem to have dominated a kind of capitalist society and it kind of goes with that a bit, the kind of people who go to the theatre to hear words. And the body seems to belong to the working man, the common man, that’s ok for rock ’n’ roll, football, sport; but the theatre, I believe, is a very decadent place, full of people who are physically sick, physically unable to do the work, but they can sit in chairs and be awfully witty and make sounds. Ok, that’s one aspect, but the real theatre for me is a theatre that has, the actors have the ability of athletes, and have that physical dexterity because that’s absolutely holy — your body is a holy place. I’ve never seen it, and therefore it’s ignored, so there’s this language, which is ignored, so when theatre critics come, and they see a physicalisation, and I don’t mean a brutish, fringe, everything-standing-on-your-head to-do, you know, Look Back in Anger or Hamlet, but an expressive physicality which is heightening the play, they fail to notice, or fail to understand, and ridicule it, or ridicule you for writing something that again is more of a physical nature, where you try to go beyond what is in front of you, and my writing’s taking that on as well. So, when I’ve seen a critic damage me, through this, and there’s one particular one, that has followed me all my life –

RB: And which critic is that?

SB: It’s John Peter [of The Sunday Times]. I think he’s recently been celebrated by a lot of fellow acolytes, and bum-lickers, because he’s probably, the work has been tame and unordinary enough for him to have, you know, passed his benediction. But, he has given me not only the worst reviews, but the most ignorant, the most utterly stupid that, I, it took my breath away that any man, this ignorant of the techniques, the ideas that are current, that are coming up, to be so utterly stupid. And not only stupid: deliberately and wilfully ignorant, and to keep writing, to me is just absolutely astonishing. Astonishing. So, he I think, may have contributed to the death of theatre, being with such a huge newspaper, and created a great, what’s the word? When you’ve burnt away the crops it’s like a kind of great track of destruction. And once I had a reasonable review for something, but, usually was like rather dumb; even plays which are my most successful.

The most successful production I’ve ever done, I think the most inventive and creative, and thought so by the audience, was Kafka’s The Trial. I’ve been working on it for maybe a decade, and I think it was in the very highly inventive production, and screens, and mime, we worked on it with such detail to create this image of the trial, using a bare stage, and just a screen which represented the door. People may not like it, I could understand, the audience were, and I felt it was like magic; so we created all these environments which would be impossible to do onstage if you did it realistically, and he just said, “What on earth is this doing at the National Theatre?” And I thought, with all the garbage they’ve got on there, what on earth is it doing, because he was like a man who was blind, deaf and dumb, not to see how we’ve evolved a style, that we contained the story, that the story goes through and that we use movement to advance it, and that the chorus becomes the figures of Joseph K’s nightmare. Generally the reviews weren’t that good because again I think it was on a level that was perhaps a little beyond them but I couldn’t understand why; but he was the worst. And I wrote a play called Messiah, he saw it in Edinburgh when we won the award, and all he said was, “Oh, this play didn’t shock me.” It wasn’t meant to shock, but he already had this idea; it was meant to enliven, to move, so I feel sorry for him. I think he must be a very lonely person, because whenever I read The Sunday Times, suddenly he’s in Manchester, Norwich, Wolverhampton, Plymouth, Barbican, in one week. He’s just like, “I must spread myself everywhere,” rather than I had a second string, because he had a second-string critic called Robert Hewison. He reviewed me in Decadence, and he gave me the most brilliant review, but not only brilliant, he educated me, he said the work reminded him of the kind of Neue Sachlichkeit school of painting in Vienna, and I had to look up the word Sachlichkeit, and the painters of that period. And so some critics have been absolutely marvellous, marvellous.

But this man, has always had a destructive, and then I once spoke, “Why do you do this?” I saw him in a restaurant, I said, “Please, Mr Peter, why do you do this? You’re hurting it. You hate my work. Why do you continually come and see it?” You know, I think, I admire David Sexton [literary critic of the Evening Standard], I think he’s on the ball, and I like… He wrote an article about four years ago, four or five, and I cut it out and I almost want to frame it, and he said, “Why I don’t go to the theatre,” and he saw a Stoppard play, but I only say it because he mentioned Stoppard, and Stoppard is a very fine writer I’m sure, and maybe it was the production that was failing, but he said it was the most inane production, which everybody celebrated. And he felt so uncomfortable, so silly, a lot of actors shouting, you know, and this is the reason I never go to the theatre. And I wrote back saying, bravo, bravo, bravo, at last somebody is saying it.

RH: The theatrical establishment has undergone a quite a few major changes over the last year, one of the most notable being the change of artistic directorship at the National Theatre. Notoriously, at the time when the job was going, you yourself said that you felt you could have run it from your bed: how do you think Nicholas Hytner has done?

SB: Well, I’m not really interested in him, quite frankly, so I don’t know how he’s done. I think he seems to have got audiences in; and if he has, however he’s done it, I mean that must be to the good. How he has done in reference to me is something else, which I can’t really talk about, because there is nothing to talk about. It’s the same situation. When I said I could run the National Theatre from my bed, I actually meant it — it’s easy. They’re looking around, and they’re, oh look, and we must find somebody; it’s easy. Having run a company for twenty years, all you do is get on the phone, and you ring up half a dozen good directors, and say, “What d’you want to do?” You know, and get a really interesting one; don’t just get the same boring faces, going backwards and forwards, because you’re lazy and because you see these people at parties, and they’re mates. Get out. Get a life, I want to say to these people, “Go abroad; meet people.” And we never see them at the National; if you go to a library, you know, you see everybody from Dostoevsky to Kafka to everyone. You go the theatre you see the same boring, dreary directors. They go from one theatre, used to go from the Barbican, they go to the National, from the National to the Barbican, back again; and it’s the same people.

So what I would have done, and I know they’re trying to do a good job, you know, in their own kind of limited way, I guess; but I wouldn’t even, wouldn’t have to get out of bed because this is a gift. I’d just ring up Julie Taymor, she’s one of the greatest physical theatre, I’ve spoken to her, she’s never been offered, given any offer from any theatre in England. I’d have said, “Come over and do your great production of Titus Andronicus, which I saw as a movie”; then I get onto France, “Um,” I say. I don’t know, there’s, Roger Planchon, obviously, but never, you’ve directed in England, never been offered. I get onto maybe Peter Stein, not my favourite director, but it might be interesting, see how he works with English actors. Never been offered a job in England. I think, “My God, these are really amazing,” and then Peter Brook: “Pete, why aren’t you doing anything here?” “Never get offered.” I said, “I don’t believe you.” “Nope, don’t get offered.” So I’ve said, “Well, get those four people, what would we like to do?” He wants to do the history of something this, and okay, Peter Stein wants to do his famous Julius Ceasar and now in English. Okay, those four, that’s first six months taken care of, and go back to sleep.

RH: You’ve partly answered my question, but apart from your own work, obviously, whose work are you most excited by at the moment?

SB: Well I don’t see a great deal of work. Sometimes I see work in the younger theatre of fringe which is, because it’s quite gutsy, physical. I like work which is directed by, controlled by an in-house company that doesn’t import a director, so the actors form their own works. I’m finding the most exciting work is actor-based, actor-driven, and I really find that quite exciting. So when I go to the Edinburgh, they’re doing one-man shows or they’re doing groups and it’s usually from necessity actor-based, and actor-driven. I don’t have in England at the moment, there’s not a great deal going on. The general standard at the moment is bad. Because a very few companies, and I know they’re, you can talk about Complicite, but I don’t think they’re getting the gigs. I don’t think they were even invited, over the last five or six years even to, I think they did one show at the National. Then they do their duty and they — so that’s just one. But there’s no encouragement, at all, from major institutions, to nurture experimental groups, or to develop movement groups, or to harness, and to inspire, or to train; they’re kept out because they’re a threat. They are the other side to the people who can only move from the head upwards. It’s not that they shouldn’t welcome them, they’re a threat. That’s why theatres should be run by administrators not by directors: it’s very difficult for a director not to have a singular opinion and stick to that, and then his little coterie of look-alikes, sound-alikes. But an administrator will travel the world, and go to Russia or see something unusual, he’ll bring it in; there’s Joe Papp, was a great administrator when I worked, I’ve worked mostly in the classics in New York, because Joe came to see me in London. Then he says, “I’m going off to Poland,” and then he went to Romania, and he finds people because he’s not, as you ring up, “Oh sorry, he’s in rehearsal.” You have no business directing plays if you’re running a big institution like the National; you have no business to be in rehearsal room; you’re at your desk, and you’re firing off your missives, your things around the world, seeing people, checking other directors, getting directors in conflict with each other, even, plays that are in conflict. And that’s why, like an opera house is run, you can’t have an opera singer run an opera house; you can’t have a painter running a national gallery. So, theatre is an anachronism, in this sense, got to progress, no director should run a theatre. I could, but very, very, very few, and even for me it would not maybe be good, but an informed, educated, cultivated man and who, I don’t know who that would be, but, someone, maybe a Jeremy Isaacs, or maybe someone like a Jonathan Miller in retirement, so that they would choose and they would travel and they would see and be responsible. At the moment it’s not been good ever since directors took over. The only time it was good was when an actor ran it, and that was when Olivier, because that was an exciting place to go.

RH: Steven Berkoff, thank you very much.

SB: Thank you.