Thursday 12 December 2019

Review, Theatre: The Actor's Lament, Gaiety Theatre

Steven Berkoff outside the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin.
Steven Berkoff outside the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin.

John McKeown

The actor certainly has a lot to wail about. Being judged by carping critics who are nothing but failed writers. Gut-churning stage-fright when the curtain rises “like a giant lid” on a mass of staring expectant faces. The indignity awaiting even the most successful actor in old age when he’s lucky to get a part as a servant in some period drama, and, while the celebrity cast are wining and dining post-performance, he catches the tube home to a tin of baked beans.

Steven Berkoff’s production of his own piece is an odd but refreshing blend of sardonic tongue-in-cheekery and visceral energy. And though the actor’s laments are all familiar ones, fleshed out by Berkoff, Jay Benedict and Andrée Bernard, they’re pungent and funny.

Lamentation isn’t the whole story.  A regally ornate chair sits at the centre of the bare stage and we’re treated to a see-sawing argument between the three as to who is the king, the real power in theatre. Is it The Actor played by Berkoff, an old classically-trained Shakespearian war-horse, the Playwright played by Jay Benedict, or is it the Director, played by no one but defended by Bernard?

The three are at a party, with the booze flowing and the posturing rampant, a kind of impromptu courtroom where director-driven, actor-driven, or playwright-primary theatre does its turn in the dock.

The set-piece arguments are delivered in loosely rhymed scatological pseudo-Shakespearian language, and provides a highly entertaining summary of the different approaches to theatre taken over the last century or so. They’re also liberally spiced with what are obviously Berkoff’s pet-hates in today’s theatre.

The Actor, after bewailing the utter boredom of being educated about a play by a degree-overloaded director, spits that “some directors have a talent for putting their grubby fingers on the pulse of mediocrity”. By which he means musicals. As for TV and film acting, that covers a multitude of performing sins, and an actor can’t die on a film set the way he can die on stage. A stage actor brings his very substance to the boards. Only he “knows, feels, understands”. The Playwright counters by reminding us of the days when egotistical actors ruled the roost.

Each character sits on the throne at some point, but it’s only The Actor whose rump really fits. “The poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage” but who alone most powerfully signifies our human transience.

Irish Independent

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