Thursday, 17 March 2005

Shakespeare's Villains by Steven Berkoff, Melbourne, Feb 17, 2005

 Shakespeare's Villains by Steven Berkoff
Her Majesty's Theatre, Melbourne, Feb  17 to Sun Feb 20, 2005
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Feb 17, 2005

If you are an Oxford Shakespearian purist or, as Steven Berkoff describes it, "an iambic fundamentalist", you might be offended by Berkoff's unconventional playing of the Bard.

His performance of Shakespeare's Villains is irreverent, unpredictable and delicious. His style is witty, impulsive, indulgent and profoundly entertaining.

The stage is empty of set and props but he fills it with substance using his potent physicality.

He colours Shakespeare poetry with his vocal acrobatics, the rich velvet of his voice soaring and resonating.

Dramatic moments are inflected with comedy. Her rolls Macbeth's Scottish "r' with relish and playfully portrays Hamlet marching the endless corridors of Elsinore, calling to his mother. He conjures images of Gertrude and Lady Macbeth with sensual, visual descriptions of their femaleness.

The choice of villains is not obvious. Hamlet and Shylock, both often played as victims, are amongst them. 

Villains, Berkoff suggests in his impassioned commentary that links scenes, may be deformed or starved of love, (Richard III) jealous of others' love, (Iago) crave power in addition to love, (Macbeth) or be overwhelmed by mother's love (Hamlet).

Iago, Othello's subversive adviser, is "a mediocre villain" because he merely fiddles with the lives of people close to him, not even doing the killing himself.

Richard III is "a genius villain". He is proud and confident as he plans his villainy, covers his sins and murders many powerful and powerless royals.

The soldier, Macbeth, is "a wannabee villain". The fact that he has love in his life from his ambitious and manipulative wife, Lady Macbeth, gives him pause. She is the catalyst for his villainy.

Shakespeare's Jewish moneylender, Shylock, from The Merchant of Venice, Berkoff tells us, has been sanitised in the playing over the year to accommodate the 20th century delicacy about racial stereotypes. Berkoff depicts him as a vengeful cur that has been kicked too many times.

Hamlet is "an intelligent villain." He is erudite, a student of philosophy, so he can pontificate and procrastinate in his seething vengeance until he kills Polonius.

The King of the Fairies, Oberon, is more charmingly naughty than evil in his plans to make his wife fall in love with a wild beast.

The evening is stuffed with ironic and acerbic references to critics, famous actors, academics and politicians. It reveals a great deal about Berkoff's magical technique and charismatic, if slightly dangerous, personality.

By Kate Herbert

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