Actor Steven Berkoff returns to writing verse drama for the first time in decades with this entertaining if slight production.
Berkoff is an actor recovering from hostile reviews of his first outing as a playwright. Licking his wounds, he is comforted by the kind words of his playwright friend played by Jay Benedict, who insists he is a fantastic actor and the critics could not forgive his presumption. And the mutual flattery escalates even further when their actress friend played by Andree Bernard arrives, to be told what a great artiste she is; even if she is understudying a soap star on the West End. And then things kick off into not so much a lament as a tirade, at the state of the West End, the cult of theatre directors, the arrogance of playwrights, and, above all, the agony of the actor’s life and the importance of what they do night after night; for themselves and for the audience.
That might sound a bit off-putting, but this splenetic hour is filled with humour and self-awareness. Berkoff knows that an actor turned playwright moaning about revivals in the West End, and how directors like them because they get a cut of the proceeds, will seem dangerously like personal carping by Berkoff himself. And so he turns it up to 11: we get Berkoff moving himself to tears over the West End being a morgue; “Poor Chekhov dragged out again, leave the poor bloody sod alone”; full of clueless screen actors; “If you don’t remember your lines you do it fifty more bloody times. But in theatre there is only one take, and it goes on all night, every night, until you get it right!”; while dedicated actors like Berkoff and Bernard are left on the scrapheap, abandoned even by Benedict.
Berkoff’s use of verse is not like Joss Whedon’s use of rhyme in his musicals. You’re rarely waiting for a pay-off from a Berkoff line, instead it sounds like normal speech with the occasional unexpected rhyme. And, performed on a bare stage, with only an ornate chair for decoration, the focus is on the physical theatre Berkoff perfected after studying at the Lecoq school in Paris; so well displayed in Ballyturk some weeks back by a younger veteran of that school, Mikel Murfi. Imaginary cigarettes are lit with hands where the thumb waggles for the flame of a lighter. Othello, Macbeth, and Lear come to life for a few lines by dint of a change in posture and tone of voice. Berkoff ages himself by stooping and playing deaf. Indeed by the end Berkoff, age 77, was drenched in sweat…
The Actor’s Lament is a late and almost disappointingly short work from a master, but, while his age precludes the full powerhouse style of his youth, his physical theatre is still to be revered.
The Actor’s Lament continues its run at the Gaiety Theatre until September 6th.