Steven Berkoff: Caught in a web
Steven Berkoff: Caught in a web
Posted: July 24, 2002
By Alan Levy
Actor-director-author is deported from Detroit as delinquent
This is a tale of two terraces - with an interlude of terror in between. The terraces are in Prague. The terror was in Detroit.
Steven Berkoff, 64, is a British-born actor, director and playwright who enjoys a semi-respectable countercultural status within the Establish-ment for having adapted, directed and performed controversial, but sometimes award-winning, versions of Shakespeare and Kafka for Britain's National Theater and the late Joseph Papp's Public Theater in New York City. "They come to me when they need me, even though they don't like to," he says, for he is known to be difficult, uncompromising.
In his landmark productions of Oscar Wilde's Salome ("Wilde's wit is in his drawing-room comedies, but his soul was in Salome") and Shakespeare's Coriolanus, "there's something about my work that imbues in you a sense of terror. The terror you feel is all mine; I'm terrified by every project I set out to do."
Terrace 1: Prague Castle
At a concert in the Lobkowitz Palace of Prague Castle on the next-to-last Wednesday in June, I found myself sitting in the front row next to a shaven-headed, vaguely familiar face. At intermission, on the palace's terrace overlooking Mala Strana and Petrin hill, my neighbor was introduced to me as Steven Berkoff, in town to film the television miniseries Children of Dune, in which he plays the wise man Stilgar.
"It's a wonderful opportunity to write," he told me, "be-cause there's lots of time out." He's been writing a book about genius and memorizing a 500-line elegy to America that he wrote after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks: ""Requiem for Ground Zero.' I'm planning to recite it in New York on 9/11/2002."
Returning to the terrace for cocktails after the concert, we continued our conversation. A London East Ender, born in Stepney ("the orifice where the Thames greets the city"), Ber-koff agreed to an interview. But he was leaving after the next day's filming for a brief stay in London and then a two-night stand - at the Universi-ty of Michigan in Ann Arbor and in Grand Rapids - with his one-man show, Shake-speare's Villains. He would be back in Prague in July.
Berkoff was looking forward to his whirlwind mini-tour. "America has long been my second home," he told me. "My family emigrated there right after the war, when I was a boy. I went to school in the Bronx for a couple of years. But then my father, a Romanian tailor who'd settled in England as a child, couldn't compete for jobs with the newly displaced persons, so we went back to Stepney. But I've worked a lot in L.A. and New York and I've had a visitor's visa for 20 years."
Terror in Detroit
Debarking from business class on a Northwest Airlines nonstop flight from London, Berkoff stood in the U.S. Immigration visitors line. First he was challenged for not having a work permit for his two-night stand. Though he assured the clerk that his manager, waiting outside, should have worked that out, he'd raised a red flag or two in the computer. He was ushered into "a holding pen with a handful of lost souls who looked as though they'd been there forever in a state of purgatory - neither heaven nor hell, just waiting to be sent back.
"And there, petty gods take charge of your life, looking for the most picayune, small-minded detail or infraction to lord it over you. A chance for mediocrity to shine - which is exactly what Kafka and Shakespeare's Villains are about. My interrogator was straight out of The Trial; I could have cast him as one of the guys who comes to arrest Josef K. But when I ascertained that his name was Schubert, I first realized that this scenario was headed beyond Kafka, beyond Shakespeare, beyond the farthest reaches of my mind.
""What is the problem?' I asked.
""Well, there's been an infringement. You overstayed [your visa] by 24 hours on one of your trips - back in 1997.'
""But I've been back and forth many times since then and nobody raised the issue.'
""Yes, but now it's after 9/11.'
""But I've come and gone after then - in 2002.'
""Well, there's new legislation that any past visa infringement is downloaded into your record and therefore you may be disallowed.'"
Berkoff says he "was sickened. By then, I'd been kept two hours in this place, not allowed to contact my manager waiting there for me. I could tell by the way Schubert put it to me - "Y'know, we could send you back' - that this was a cue for me to apologize, to crawl, to beg forgiveness and another chance. I didn't wish to de-fend myself. It made me mad, but all I said was "Do what you like' and took out a book and pretended to read."
He was seeing red and so, apparently, was Schubert, who stared fixedly into his computer. When no apology was forthcoming, Schubert sent for his superior: "a woman who told me that "since 9/11, we have zero tolerance. Zero tolerance.' And she kept repeating those two words like a mantra. "It's the law,' she said, though my lawyer later told me those powers are discretionary. They could have just given me a warning."
While Berkoff was resisting passively, Schubert came back smiling. The good news was that he'd found Berkoff a seat on the turnaround of his London - Detroit flight. "To tell the truth," says Berkoff, "I was almost glad to go back. For this was a deliberate savaging from a mindless, cold-blooded beast using the law and 9/11 to give quasi-Nazis new weapons."
Only when he was turned over to two armed escorts was he allowed to call his waiting agent's mobile phone. The performance in Ann Arbor was canceled; the next day's audience in Grand Rapids was shown a video of Berkoff's 2001 performance of the same show in New York - this time to outrage as well as applause. By then, Berkoff had been bundled into a seat in the back of the economy cabin amidst a throng of partying teenagers on their first trip abroad. He arrived in London 20 hours after he'd left there.
Terrace 2: Kampa Park
On his first night back in Prague, Berkoff and I dined al fresco at Mala Strana's riverfront restaurant.
How did he feel about America now? "At first I felt a deep sense of loss. Something evil had crossed my path. Something dirty had covered my face like a cobweb in a dark house. Something has been done which is out of character with the perceived American sense of openness and fair play. ... It's become like a communist state."
Or Kafka's Amerika. But Berkoff still hopes to go back to New York in September to read from his "Elegy for Ground Zero," which he proceeded to recite from memory so resonantly and eloquently that all dinner conversation stood suspended in the night air over the Kampa Park terrace:
America is for me
a childhood fantasy,
It's George Gershwin,
Bernstein's On the Town,
It's West Side Story
Or it's Chorus Line.
It's Yankee Stadium
Or corned beef on rye;
or Shakespeare in the Park,
It's scrapers leaping boldly in the sky,
How can you hate a city with a heart?
Alan Levy's e-mail address is
Born Aug. 3, 1937 in London
Educated in London and New York, high-school dropout
at 14; studied drama and mime in Lon-don and Paris.
Career 100 odd jobs, mostly menial, between ages 15-20; steward in British merchant navy; acted in repertory companies; formed own London Theatre Group at Arts Labora-tory in Covent Garden, 1968.
Milestones First productions: Kafka's In the Penal Colony and Metamorphosis, Shakespeare's Macbeth; first film roles in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon; first original play, East,
presented at Edinburgh Festival, 1975; has performed The Tell-Tale Heart at Divadlo Na zabradli in Prague Poe festival, 1999.
Married twice, divorced twice, no children.
By Alan Levy