My Life: A Quagmire of Nothingness? Accusations by Steven Berkoff


British theatre legend Steven Berkoff has made some interesting comments about the state of our industry this week. From his perspective our actors are of such poor quality that the future of the art is damned. He made some serious accusations about ‘young actors’ - though having not referenced a single ‘actress’ throughout the tirade, perhaps I am too irrelevant to be part of the problem...

Our charges

Being ghastly, uninteresting, boring, tedious.

It’s hard to argue with a theatre legend.

Only caring about getting a part, getting ‘discovered’.

In relation to film of course - because that medium is vapid and superficial.

No interest in working in theatre

We should relish an unlivable wage and meagre audiences.

Knowing nothing about the great legends of the past.

Because you just can’t act without knowing about Olivier and Gielgud.

Knowing nothing about our culture.

Wait. What? That’s news to me.

As I listened to Berkoff’s passionate take down of my generation I felt a sting of embarrassment: he said we didn’t know about legends of the past. He listed some names and whilst I knew enough not to feel a total fraud, I didn’t for example know Ralph Richardson and suddenly I proved him right. I had never heard of this man so I must be ‘ghastly and uninteresting’.

(But then I remembered I am an ‘actress’ and he wasn’t talking to me anyway)

I watched his interview again. And what struck me was how great a time it must have been in Berkoff’s day. I can only imagine being able to work in Rep Theatre. To be part of those movements of the 20th century, the heydays of the Royal Court. A time when venues didn’t feel they had to choose a ‘safe’ project over an interesting one. That must have been great... And yet the landscape has changed.

We live in an immediate time - why go out when we could just watch Netflix right now? Why risk a spending money on a dud show when I know Breaking Bad is awesome? I could see the acclaimed People, Places, Things at The National, but more people I know will be seeing the Matt Damon space movie and that'll give us more to talk about. Audiences have a lot of options nowadays and there needs to be a damn compelling reason to head all the way to a theatre. You could cast Benedict Cumberbatch or Nicole Kidman in your show - that seems to work. But like it or not, for better or worse film is king at this point.

Film plays an important role for audiences. It checks many of the boxes that theatre does but obviously the craft of filmmaking is entirely different. It is not solely the actor's medium. So does that mean we as actors have dropped the ball? It’s no longer just us and the audience so we can afford to be lazy? The lighting guys will make me look attractive so I just need to show up say the lines? Somehow I don’t think so.

I do understand the sense of frustration Berkoff feels. There are a lot of bad films.* There are a lot of s--t actors. And nothing makes an actor look more s--t than being in a bad film. And that bad film may do well regardless. It’s a funny old world. But Berkoff disappoints me by implying that actors who aspire to work in television and film are somehow superficial. That they have a lesser craft. That being labelled ‘pretty’ and thrown into a t.v. series is damning the future of art.

His entire interview was overwhelmingly cynical and its rubbed me the wrong way - sorry Steve. It’s very easy to look down on the younger generation from a mountain of privilege and accolades but every actor I know works hard to train. Not just at drama school, but on every job (if we can get them) and in between jobs and whilst working our day jobs. If you go into acting - and you stick at it - you aren't some ignorant fool, who can’t be arsed with craft, hell bent on being ‘discovered’. Those people exist, sure, but they don’t stick at it, unless they are ‘discovered’. Maybe this is Berkoff’s issue: unworthy people being ‘discovered’ - in which case, isn’t his problem with filmmakers; casting directors?

I feel like his perspective on the shortcomings of t.v. and film actors is based around a prejudice against the whole medium and mainly because it’s not theatre.

As someone who spends all her time running a theatre company, who also longs for the days of Rep to return, I can sympathise with his anger. It would be great if theatre played a more important role culturally. If it wasn’t just a minority who felt able to enjoy it. But here we are. Actors have had to adapt. There is more work in film and t.v. Fact. A good showreel clip is more likely to get you an audition than another venue on your CV. The work also pays. I don’t think that can be considered greedy when theatre often pays so poorly.

There is also a sense in Berkoff’s words that a lack of respect for our elders is to blame. Perhaps if a clone of Laurence Olivier were to exist today we would all pull our fingers out and learn how to ‘act properly’? We are accused of not knowing enough about the great stage actors... But we never got the chance to see them - they’re mostly dead. And while I marveled at Olivier’s Hamlet on film, a theatre production is only as live as the actors in it, so what does Berkoff propose we do?

Shall we all study up and take a pub quiz to prove we know our stuff? Intellectually, I know about the great theatre legends. It’s not that I don’t respect them or covet their skill and magnetism - but if I may be so bold: it was a different time. Acting styles change. Just as it changed countless time before Stanislavski came along, acting will continue to change. To assume that the legends of your generation should automatically be the legends of ours is... an opinion... Forgive us if we choose not to share it. Forgive us if we argue that the performances from the ‘golden age’ could be old fashioned and O.T.T. by today’s standards. Forgive us as we attempt to forge our own style in the face of massive cuts to the arts, an overly saturated profession and the demand to look unnaturally attractive. We’re doing our best.

“There’s no future. There is no future - Unless they are encouraged to - Unless it all... See years ago when I started...[he continues to reminisce]”

Unless we’re encouraged to... Unless it all... WHAT? The one point where the man could have made a constructive comment and he gave up mid sentence. It is far easier to comment on your dislike of something than to commit to finding solutions. It is very easy to be cynical ** but it’s pretty f---ing unhelpful. Though, I suppose I can thank him for bringing topics like this into the debate with his scathing remarks.

I wonder if Mr Berkoff really thinks it is hopeless. That would be a shame. And I don’t know what theatre he’s been watching, but if as he says there only ‘one or two’ good ones out there trying their best then I would suggest that he’s looking in the wrong places. ***

* Taken, Taken 2, Quantum of Solace, Marley and Me, anything with Scarlet Johannson

** E.g. This Blog Post.

*** Then again, I am only an 'actress' so what would I know...

#StevenBerkoff #TheMartian #BritishTheatre #Badactors #LaurenceOlivier

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