Nobody does Berkoff any more except students and Berkoff. Arguably nobody ever did. Actually, a third group should be added to the list: devotees. Devotees to the point of zealous evangelism. Devotees such as George Dillon, who for several years now has in effect been "baby Berkoff". Devotees, apparently, such as Martin Webb, who has directed or acted in a clutch of Berkoffs before taking the helm of the production of Greek now to be seen at the Riverside Studios.
Webb knows his stuff. He elicits from his cast of four the twitches, facial and vocal over-articulations and exhaustively prolonged repetitions that are Berkoffian hallmarks. The trouble is that he loses sight of the wood amid all his lovingly tended trees. The last production I saw of this update of the Oedipus myth cantered straight through from beginning to end in an hour and forty minutes, not cut, not rushed. Webb's version, including an interval, lasts fully an hour longer. Arguably, this much even of Berkoff himself would be excessive; of a predominantly twentysomething fringe company, it was, for me, purgatorial.
This is not to belittle the evident abilities of Oliver Lansley, Amanda Russell, Olivia Lipscombe and Gabriel Kuttner. All four clearly have the skills and discipline to do everything Webb demanded of them. (It's just a pity he never demanded that they know when to stop.) It must also be said that, on the night I attended, the (apparently) college party which made up the vast majority of the audience was more than warm in its reception of the piece. But they seemed to be applauding a collection of performance riffs and a style of presentation rather than the play.
For Greek has dated terribly. Arguably, the London in which it
is set, and the plague and strife and subsequent boom it depicts, are timeless
and simply wear the clothes of a particular period. But I don't think so:
it is very palpably an indictment of the social near-collapse of the 1970s
and a prophecy that the Thatcher era then just beginning would be colder
and cleaner but no less callous. It is one of its author's most time-specific
pieces, and twenty years on it does not even have the quaint ring of a
period piece; rather, as molesworth says of his school piano, "this one
go plunk". Webb and his cast are compelled to crank up the Berkoffisms
to make it entertaining, because it does nothing else any more. All that
it says, in this production, is "Look – we can do Berkoff's style really
well!" Frankly, if they'd just told me as much in advance, I'd have taken
their word for it without sitting through the play.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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