BERKOFF: ONE MAN, featuring:
THE TELL-TALE HEART adapted by Steven Berkoff from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, and
DOG by Steven Berkoff
Riverside Studios, Crisp Road, London W6 9RL
TICKETS: 0208 237 1111
Tue 12 Apr – Sat 23 Apr, 8pm
Runs 1st half, 40 minutes. 2nd half, 20 minutes. One 25-minute interval.
Review: Alec Mullion, 19th April.
Lack of Substance over Form for Berkoff: One Man
Steven Berkoff’s choice to put together his adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart and his own creation, Dog, at London’s Riverside Studios is billed as exploring the themes of "murder, masculinity and insanity". I feel a bit of crow-barring going on here: On one hand we have a wonderfully crafted and classically gothic 1843 first-person short story about a man’s obsession and his ensuing murdering madness. On the other we have a 1994 rude, crude and racist Millwall football supporter’s two-dimensional account of taking his dog for a walk. Both contain good performances by Berkoff but unfortunately here the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts.
In Tell-Tale Heart, Berkoff, as the narrator, stands in a pool of white spotlight. He is dressed in white tie and tails, his face pancaked in white make-up and a curled-up moustache drawn on his upper lip. The stereotypical melodramatic bad-guy addresses the audience directly.
We are told how, over a period of eight nights, he watched stealthily an elderly neighbour sleep whilst calculating with foresight, caution and dissimulation said neighbour’s demise. The narrator insists throughout that he is not mad, despite murdering the old man for no reason other than his "eye of a vulture".
The theatre programme is a simple A4 sheet of paper outlining Berkoff’s long and illustrious, self-styled and self-created career. The stage design is a stark, black canvas. Minimalistic presentations, both. Berkoff’s presence and energy, and indeed the language within the plays he writes and performs have been known to provide all the colour and texture required. His expertise in mime provides, literally from thin air, all the props he might call upon. Or so you may think . . .
There are sublime moments of mime and physical theatre throughout Poe’s story, notably when Berkoff’s character comes down the winding staircase of his home to unlock the door to a pair of enquiring policemen. But why, having been trained in mime in London and Paris, does Berkoff continually break one of its simplest rules: If you mime an object and put it down, when you go to pick it up again, do so where you mimed you left it. And that’s just one example of where Berkoff flouting that convention. Despite the wonderful physical theatre he brings to these performances, such sloppiness releases your disbelief from eager suspension.
Despite this, Berkoff appears at all times to be in control, even responding to noises-off from the audience or from another studio’s leaking performance. Nothing is beyond his capture. The contorted masks he conjures in his face represent each character, his flawless comic timing, his intensity carrying you to the climax. You wonder in his physicality, you imagine his world and are mesmerised. Unfortunately, Poe’s wonderfully crafted words and lyrical flow are often lost, swallowed or upstaged by Berkoff’s physical performance. It feels more about the performer than the writing.
As for Dog, it is slapstick, panto-like fun with more caricature than character. Berkoff presents his tale directly to the audience, switching between playing the hooligan and his much put upon pit-bull terrier, Roy. Berkoff’s mimicry of Roy’s staring eyes and panting mouth is fantastically funny.
Berkoff’s Dog has no depth: the character’s physicality, costume and story are entirely stereotypical. The narrative lacks any experiential shift and the comedy is cheap. The play relies on Berkoff’s clownlike character creation, which is simply to be laughed at. But, for what it is, and Dog doesn’t pretend to be anything else, I did laugh. A lot.