Stephen Berkoff is amongst the crème de la crème of Britains traditionally trained thespians, therefore it should come as no surprise that he can command the entire Nottingham Playhouse stage. On his own. Without any props or staging, whatsoever. Within the space of two hours he casually embodied Iago, Richard III, both Macbeths’, Hamlet and Oberon, to name but a few, to a highly convincing level. It’s fair to say, that the LA Weekly Theatre Award the one-man show received in 2000, is more than deserved.
Shakespeare’s Villains deals with Berkoff’s field of expertise: the villain. From Hitler to the ultimate Bond baddies, he’s played them all. In this play Berkoff kindly takes us by the hand and explains some of Shakespeare’s finest characters; those who are inherently evil, whose situation leads them to evil deeds or who are at the mercy of an evil society. Rather than just a string of monologues, Berkoff wittily placed his villains in easily classifiable categories; the mediocre villain, the genius villain…and although all of these roles (highlighted by a spotlight tinged with blood) are clearly second nature to him, the spiel in between is improvised, bouncing off the audience in a truly amazing manner. Each villain is clearly a vulgar, intense feast of exaggeration and yet their very humane foibles are so keenly observed and applied. All of this is rolled up with a street-urchin like sense of humour.
The best moments for me were Hamlet trudging through his royal home shouting ‘Mother!’…’Mother!’ repeatedly, whilst climbing endless staircases and encountering numerous doors, all along the stage sides! Or Oberon, that last villain, as the first but most primitive Junk dealer, was sadly, as too much of a coward to administer this love drug himself and his noble servant (Puck) rises to the occasion. Puck – a name which Berkoff implies is best not shouted at the Globe in strong winds…
My only complaint is that dear Berkoff cruelly stereotypes us students. We after all have so dedicatedly forked out our cash for him, he suggests that the only reason poor Hamlet managed to drag his deed of revenge out across four hours was down to the fact that he is simply a student unable to firstly analyse and secondly plan his act of retribution.
Apart from this minor blunder, it truly was a brilliant performance. And yet the highly talented Berkoff himself seemed most genuinely proud about the fact that Sir Ian McKellen lives on his road. And no, he’s not bitter that he is not yet knighted. Not one little bit.