Shakespeare’s Villains: A Masterclass in Evil

Playhouse (Steven Berkoff)


When most people are asked to name Shakespeare’s top villains, they usually come up with Richard III, Iago, Shylock, Macbeth and Mrs B, of course, Claudius in Hamlet and – um,um, um.

That’s because there aren’t many absolutely evil people in major Shakespeare’s plays, although some may add Angelo in Measure for Measure, and perhaps Timon of Athens, and personally I’d add Prospero.

So you might be surprised to find Hamlet himself on Berkoff’s list, as well as Oberon, King of the Fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream — although not for his paedophilic tendencies, but because he was, in Berkoff’s own phrase, “the first drug-pusher in English literature”.

This is an amazing production, and no matter how you think you’re prepared for it, you won’t find what you expected. Part pure performance, part lecture, 67-year-old Berkoff comes onto a bare stage dressed in simple black shirt and trousers, and turns on two hours of ingenuity that fascinated, irritated, amused and intrigued me in equal parts.

His thesis is that Shakespeare has different kinds of villains – the genius (Dicky 3), the mediocre (Iago), the indecisive (Hamlet) and the villain-by-default (Macbeth). In arguing his case, he illustrates by turning into each these characters with a simple change of expression, posture and voice, and although you want to stand up and argue with him, or even think through your objections to what he’s saying, he never gives you time, rushing on from one point to another and overwhelming you with the sheer power of his performance.

In between portraying his villains, he treats us to asides about the life of an actor, his own theories on casting (why should it always be a black actor playing Othello? Do we insist that only a 14-year-old virgin can play Juliet? In that case, who’s going to conduct the auditions?), and some bitchy comments about the gods of the English stage like Olivier and Gielgud, whom he sends up mercilessly while professing his admiration for them.

By the end of the first half, my friends and I were gasping with mental exhaustion and overcome with professional admiration of his sheer brilliance as an actor although, as one theatre director noted, it was almost like an audition piece for international directors – “just see what I’m capable of.”

He’s undoubtedly capable of almost everything, and this show marks him, as if we didn’t already know, as one of the great actors of the last 50 years. But in a way I wish I’d left at interval, for the second half didn’t live up to the first in intellectual satisfaction.

Instead of showing why he considers Hamlet as the real villain, who brings about the death of seven people because of his morally-induced indecisiveness, he reverts to miming the scene in Gertrude’s bedchamber in very funny detail but at unnecessary length, so that we’re distracted from the weakness of his argument here by admiring his antics. And he has so much fun camping up Titania with mimed lipstick, hair and big boobs that the show falls away almost into farce.

Nevertheless it’s a bravura performance, and one that no lover of Shakespeare should miss. If I were an English teacher again, I’d use this performance as the basis for class discussion, because you learn so much about the art of the stage, the brilliance of the playwright and the moral ambiguities that beset us all that you will never look at Shakespeare in the same light again.

Yes, Shakespeare still lives, but we need interpreters like Steve Berkoff to prove it to us, not dusty old academics or self-opinionated young directors.

Written and performed by Steven Berkoff

Playing until Saturday 12 February 2005

Running time: 2 hours including interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Mon 7th February 2005)