Steven Berkoff's Requiem For Ground Zero, a late addition to the Scotsman Assembly's programme (venue 3) on the Edinburgh Fringe, is described as a work in progress (although its text has already been published). The single most progressive measure he could take with the 55-minute piece is to remove himself from its performance.
This isn't a personal attack; it's specific to this instance. Love Berkoff on stage or loathe him - or, like me, veer between the two poles as occasion seems to merit - the one constant factor, whether he's appearing in Shakespeare or his own plays or wherever else, is an immense self-regard at the core of his performance style. He relishes every instant: every proud stance, every grand physical gesture, every exaggerated vocal soar and dive, every lightning-fast gag. And likewise, whatever your view of the September 11th atrocities, one thing that is unhelpful when considering them is self-regard.
Berkoff, alone and black-clad in a circular pool of light on the Ballroom stage, considers various aspects. He describes the ordinary morning, pre-air strike, in New York City; he hymns America as the world's melting pot; he excoriates Islamic fundamentalism; he recounts his own response on seeing the television reportage in a break from rehearsals; he (too quickly, too facilely) lampoons Bush and Blair's rhetoric in the wake of the events. For one who prides himself on standing outside the mainstream – a view belied by the sell-out houses here – he seems to have taken care to check all the requisite boxes, creating an overall picture that is not so much complex as just muddled.
And whatever angle we approach the subject from, there he is between us and it, always in the foreground himself. Other 9/11 shows on the Fringe from young American companies may seek privileged theatrical status by virtue of the participants having more or less directly experienced that day's happenings; Berkoff's, although no doubt unintentionally, implicitly seeks privilege by virtue of it being Berkoff's. The best will in the world may be behind the writing and creation of the piece, but such a style is massively inappropriate to the topic.
At times the writing is unfocused: when he speaks unspecifically of "we", does he mean the West in general, the British or even, given his own lineage, the Jews? One can't tell. At other times, he runs away with things: a passing respectful mention of the true compassionate spirit of Islam does nothing to balance the lengthy, grandiloquent sneering about Mohammed Atta and his fellows' supposed visions of their place in paradise as martyrs in a holy war. Most disconcertingly for me, he even rewrites in Berkoffian blank verse some of the mobile phone messages left by passengers on the aeroplanes to their loved ones before impact. There may be nothing inherently sacrosanct about these messages, but to commandeer such intensely personal, poignant material for his own dramatic ends, less than a year after the events depicted, is surely to go too far.
As a personal solo performance, Requiem For Ground Zero is staggeringly misconceived in every significant respect. In a less culturally voracious era, it might have been the ending of its creator's career. As it is, it has an even longer way to go than does our wider social comprehension of the events and their consequences.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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