In One Man, Berkoff delivers a bravura performance of two monologues - The Tell-Tale Heart and Dog. In both pieces he harnesses an almighty and dazzling intensity. His theatrical craftsmanship - his physicality and tremendous voice work - has been honed to razor sharpness over a career spanning five decades and it is breathtaking to watch.
I last saw One Man in the early 1990s played by a noticeably younger and trimmer Berkoff. My memory of that performance was that both The Tell-Tale Heart and Dog were considerably more threatening and menacing. My memory may be incorrect, but this version seemed to be injected with a greater levity. More comedy perhaps, a lighter touch. Both versions were sensational.
Maybe, at seventy-one, Berkoff has mellowed. But more likely, as the work has remained in his repertoire for fifteen years or so, Berkoff has continued to play with it. One of the great joys of maintaining a work in repertoire is allowing it to evolve and remain fresh.
Steven Berkoff has a particular performance style in which text, voice and physicality are equally important. While his own work and Poe’s are both evocative texts, his dynamic voice and eloquent body are equally intrinsic to the power of his work.
To say he uses mime is to understate what he does. His physical skill is based in mime, but the way he expresses it is rarely seen. Berkoff’s physicality is muscular and it affects the audience at a visceral level. Similarly his resonant and expressive voice explores its full and imaginative range, enhancing the poetry of the texts.
In The Tell-Tale Heart, Steven Berkoff takes Edgar Allan Poe’s classic gothic story about madness, fear and loathing and turns it into a sublime theatrical spectacle. It is a perfect vehicle for Berkoff: it is full of the unsettling stuff of nightmares and has the ability to penetrate our equilibrium and burrow into our subconscious.
Berkoff embellishes it with modern, improvised asides and imbues it with humour. None of this detracts from the essential horror of the tale, it just serves to make the work entirely Berkoff’s own. His comedy just adds to the compelling portrait of a madman.
Berkoff’s performance is precise and completely disciplined. Every raised eyebrow, every change of intonation has been perfectly rehearsed. But there is nothing at all clinical about it. For all you might be aware of the precision, The Tell-Tale Heart primarily has a strong emotional affect on the audience. It is scary, thrilling, hugely entertaining.
In a complete shift of tone and pace, Berkoff pounces back onto the stage to perform the second work of the evening, a brilliant self written work, Dog. This is an hilarious depiction of an English soccer hooligan and his dog, Roy. Berkoff uses his expert skills of mime and comic characterisation to conjure the vivid characters of the owner and dog.
A word to the sensitive: Dog is a satirical piece about a vulgar, foul mouthed, racist, violent lager lout. It contains strong language and the performance has the potential to offend those who fail to appreciate Berkoff’s clear intention.
For the rest of us it is a robust, energetic and uproarious piece, tinged with pathos. Roy the dog is probably the only creature who loves his owner, who, full of bravado, mindlessly ploughs through his life binge drinking and fighting at football games.
Berkoff uses repetitive swearing not only to exploit its comic potential, but also as a poetic device. It becomes mesmeric and tragically points to both the character’s limited world view and his limited ability to express himself.
It might seem incongruous for Berkoff, in the twilight of his career, to be playing a lager lout, but on the contrary, it makes the character’s pointless existence doubly poignant as we see the old and lonely man that his character will become.
He may be 71, but Steven Berkoff had the audience in the palm of his hand for every moment he was on stage. He still has more magic, skill, steely power and verve than many actors half his age. Who knows if this will be his last tour? Do you want to take the chance of missing it?
Venue: Riverside Theatres, Parramatta
Date: 9 September
Bookings: (02) 8839 3399 www.riversideparramatta.com.au