Steven Berkoff’s work, and indeed the man himself, has always had the ability to divide the crowd but his work is invariably recognisably distinctive. It has even led to an adjective being coined in his honour – Berkovian. This is used to describe the eclectic mix/hodgepodge (take your choice) drawn from practitioners like Artaud and Brecht, using an extreme physicality and mime techniques and combining aspects from genres as diverse as Japanese Noh/Kabuki, British music hall and ancient Greek drama all topped off with a healthy dollop of Shakespeare. Much of this, and more besides, is evident in a touring production of two of his shorter pieces Dog/Actor being mounted by Threedumb Theatre. I caught up with the pairing in (for me) far flung Wimbledon as part of their Fringe Festival.
The production has been developed over a number of years, with a previously planned tour banjaxed by the pandemic (see here). This forced Threedumb artistic director Stephen Smith into a steep learning curve with online theatre productions which is where I first came across his work and became increasingly captivated with what he has done. So, I was thrilled to finally catch up with this performer’s work on a real stage at last. It’s a short but densely packed evening which provides a superb showcase for the actor and had me thoroughly enjoying Berkoff’s work – which I have to admit has not always been the case.
First up is Dog. Although the title nominally applies to Roy, a pit bull terrier it might also equally be appropriate for his owner, a racist skinhead who is handy with a paint spray can, enjoys the football, is not averse to sporadic verbal and physical violence and thinks nothing of downing thirty five pints of lager – or bringing them back up again. Having had the pleasure of several online conversations with the actor nothing could be further away from his real personality, yet Smith captures the lairy attitude, faux injured innocence and explosive temper as though to the manner born. And that goes double for the dog, badged “a tank with teeth”, who is also given a voice. For Smith switches between the two with lightning speed and with the aid of some sharp lighting cues as he falls to the floor and bounds back up again, snarling as both human and canine. It’s a visceral performance and yet, at bottom, the character is clearly a damaged soul trying to cover inadequacy with bravado. If there’s any doubt about this, Smith as director closes the piece to the strains of The Platters’ Great Pretender neatly segueing into the second monologue which also takes artifice and pretence as its theme.
Actor is an both a homage to and deconstruction of the likes of mime artist Marcel Marceau (or the Kenny Everett character Morris Mimer – take your pick) in particular and of the pretentious and increasingly paranoid world of thespians in general. The main character here is a struggling artiste going about his daily business and encountering all manner of fellow performers most of whom are clearly doing better than him in the employment stakes. He pretends to be happy for them but is really seething inside. We are also taken through several inevitably failed personal relationships and his dealings with an over doting mother and a dismissively abusive father. Although it is about an individual struggling in a particular set of circumstances there is also a universality which is brought out about life’s setbacks and how we cope (or don’t) with “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. Not for nothing is the actor’s audition piece one of the most famous speeches in literature. Though this is all pretty much a stereotype to be laughed at, Smith makes so much more out of the text and takes it to a new level showing his protagonist’s desperation and inability to deal with rejection. Cleverly the disparate threads of the piece are drawn together by the use of a loop pedal whereby a percussive underscoring provides a rhythmic beat to proceedings and accentuates the poetic nature of the spoken text.
The tour of Dog/Actor continues to Rugby, Cambridge, Camden and Edinburgh over the summer so catch it when you can. As acknowledged in a short thank you at the end of the show, this sunny warm early evening wasn’t perhaps quite the right moment to be sitting in a small black box theatre but nonetheless I found it a rewarding experience. Stephen Smith is a skilled and intense performer who has shown he has the chops to embrace digital and live theatre and deliver in both formats. Unlike the two protagonists desperately seeking validation in this memorable show, he can certainly look forward to a bright future.