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Berkoff’s Masterclass is Shakespeare Lite

Roshan Sewpersad

Shakespeare’s Villains: A Masterclass in Evil
Written and performed by Steven Berkoff
Baxter Theatre, Cape Town
April 2004

Who better to portray an essence of Shakespeare than Steven Berkoff, who continues the same artistic line that the Bard and all other brilliant playwrights and thespians form part of?

In Shakespeare’s Villains, Berkoff examines aspects of villainy and their sources by “peering inside the heads” of some of Shakespeare’s most well-known characters: Hamlet, Coriolanus, Shylock, Iago, Macbeth, Richard III and Oberon, amongst others. This is indeed a noble undertaking, as the psychology and expression of villainy should make for a primal, and perhaps abstract, theatrical experience.

Unfortunately the masterclass fell short of delivering what the title promises and what the programme hinted at.

Shakespeare, to me, is one of the world’s greatest psychologists, and only an equally astute observer and analyst of personalities and societies could hope to whirl through the characters that Berkoff chooses and categorise and contextualise their brands of villainy in a comedy!

Unfortunately, because of the uncomfortable relationship between a masterclass in villainy and comedy, some of the monologue was drowned out by the misguided laughter of the audience, who felt they had to do something (ie laugh even during the “serious” bits) to get under the skin of the performance. And more unfortunately, this reaction was rewarded by Berkoff’s use of trite, outrageously conventional gestures to caricature the female characters and, in the first half of the play, literally acting out what he was saying — a kind of lowest common denominator, literal-interpretive acting.

Whatever parodic point he was trying to illustrate was lost, especially on the audience who laughed at anything vaguely sexual or ambiguous in allusion.

The script does have genuinely funny moments, though, especially when Berkoff shares his own theatrical experiences and anecdotes about other productions and interpretations of Shakespeare’s villains.

His stage presence and authority are beyond criticism — he delivers a fine performance, albeit without assuming the “souls” of the characters. This is enhanced by very effective use of lighting on the bare, black stage.

Berkoff ultimately does illustrate aspects of Shakespeare’s villains, but it comes off as Shakespeare lite, more in the tradition of a high school lesson than a masterclass.



LitNet: 26 April 2004

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