Stephen Taylor / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
|Steven Berkoff with the writer in Tokyo in March 2010|
"What I like about kabuki is that it makes the art of the actor on the level of an opera singer or a ballet dancer or a classical pianist."
As British theater director Steven Berkoff took a break from rehearsals for his production of a play based on Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis (Japan title: Henshin) in Tokyo last month, he told The Daily Yomiuri why he was eager to get back to the roots of one of his favorite art forms after 18 years away from Japan.
Having spent the previous evening watching kabuki, the 72-year-old veteran expanded on his admiration for traditional Japanese theater, in stark contrast to his opinion of its counterparts elsewhere.
"[Kabuki] dignifies the art of acting, which has been undignified for many years. [Acting has] been so undignified...in the end any idiot can act, and very often they do," he said.
This production of The Metamorphosis--which runs until March 22 in Tokyo before a national tour--stars Mirai Moriyama as protagonist Gregor, the office clerk who wakes up one morning to discover that he has turned into a beetle. It was first adapted for the stage by Berkoff 41 years ago, and the Londoner last visited Japan to direct the same play. This time, he sees no reason for the production to undergo a drastic metamorphosis.
"Once you've evolved something and that's taken you years, you don't want to change it--'Oh, I think I'll do something else now'-- there'd be no point, but I interpret it according to the actors I've got. So I keep the form, but they will change it accordingly. We have a different Gregor--Mirai [Moriyama]--and he's extraordinarily different. I just let him do what he more or less wants, because he's so inventive," Berkoff explained.
Unlike some non-Japanese theater directors, Berkoff is comfortable with the slightly more hierarchical relationship between actors and directors in Japan. "In England, I've worked with a lot of actors who've got attitude--even arrogance--and [say] 'Oh, I don't know why I should do this or that.' I don't find that here. I find it's not servility, it's a kind of respect for the art and if you're the director you're the boss. Maybe it's to do with Japanese culture and the respect for authority, but I like that, that they do listen, that they're keen.
"I'm proud to be doing this, because it's a serious play, in a serious city, with a serious company, so this is me," he said.
The tale is a classic piece of European literature, one that Berkoff feels will strike a chord with Japanese audiences.
"They would think it's Japanese--totally familiar. It's an allegory, a fairy tale, a moral tale, it is directed with gesture and movement--it'll be totally familiar to them, it wouldn't be at all alien; in fact they probably would think I'm Japanese," he said.
While Berkoff may be satisfied with his production in Japan, he expressed despair at the state of theater in Britain.
"The English public have been suckered--they've been taken for suckers by a whole heap of trash--and I think it's shocking. I really think they have been like children, they've been given bad food and I think it's absolutely terrible," he said.
According to Berkoff, the source of this "bad food" is a new breed of theater directors who have never actually trod the boards themselves.
"Any actor is a good director. Actors are wonderful because once they tap into it, they can do it. I've always enjoyed being directed by an actor, they understand your problems," he said.
Having performed on the stage since the early 1960s and appeared in a number of Hollywood movies, such as Beverly Hills Cop, Octopussy and Rambo: First Blood Part II, Berkoff fits his own criteria for directing. It is on the stage where his heart most definitely lies, and he is particularly proud of being perhaps the greatest thorn in the side of British theater.
"The establishment likes to have thorns. It keeps them going, and the thorns are a little bit like when you do acupuncture--it strengthens the immune system. So I suppose I am a thorn, possibly, but it is better to be a thorn than to be part of [the establishment]."
The play will be performed in Japanese, though Berkoff is so familiar with the text that the language barrier should not be an obstacle for him.
"I know where the emotions lie, the color lies, the movement lies. I've also directed it in German, and in Hebrew. I directed it in American, of course, and in Australian--'cause they're two different languages--but actors are very similar all around the world," he said.
As for its relevance for contemporary audiences, Berkoff concedes that he has no qualms about moving with the times, if necessary.
"I have always been ahead of the game anyway. Years and years ahead, though now they're catching up with me a little bit, though not much. An astute observer may say, 'Oh...I've seen that, it's a bit dated,' perhaps, but I don't think so, because as I redo it, anything that's dated I sense and I cut, get rid of," he said.
Berkoff's forthright nature is invigorating, though some people might label him a cantankerous old devil. Yet it is this passion that has resulted in some of the most pioneering and, at times, radical theater of the past 40 years. Even in his 70s, Berkoff's belief remains strong.
"I think I probably have a great deal more [passion than in my youth]--it's peculiar. I feel a lot more deeper and I've become more politicized and I've realized how important this work is, not because it's me, but because I was lucky enough to choose the kind of work that means something to people," he said.
"The Metamorphosis" (Japan title: "Henshin"), based on the story by Franz Kafka and directed by Steven Berkoff, is at Le Theatre Ginza in Ginza, Tokyo, until March 22, (03) 3477-5858, and will move to Okayama Shimin Kaikan in Okayama on March 31, (086) 903-2001; Sankei Hall Breeze in Osaka on April 2-4, (06) 6341-8888; Fukuoka Shimin Kaikan in Fukuoka on April 6, (092) 715-0374; Aubade Hall in Toyama on April 11, (025) 245-5100; and Ryutopia in Niigata on April 13, (025) 224-5521.
(Mar. 12, 2010)