By Danielle Farrow
In Steven Berkoff’s An Actor’s Lament, Berkoff as actor and would-be playwright John, ably assisted by Jay Benedict as David, a director, and pretty much outshone by Andree Bernard as reduced-to-understudying-to-pay-the-bills Sarah, dissects the inner rantings of many an actor.
A lone chair, spotlit at start and finish, is the only set, and smoking and drinking paraphernalia are created by the performers’ mimes, in a pleasingly easy and stylish manner. Bernard, particularly, is spot on in her physicality, with the trademark Berkoff pushing-things-to-the-limit style that requires commitment and great skill to be believable – here achieved. Benedict gives less of this particular kind of characterisation and Berkoff himself no longer dives into its full physicality and detail, though he still embodies his acerbic phrases – often brilliantly descriptive – with visceral energy.
The play rips through both actors’ pretensions and their genuine grievances. There are swipes at tv and film, blaming diminishment in theatre performances on the need of producers to employ celebrity performers, who then do not have the necessary skills. Other targets are playwrights themselves – when weak writing has to be carried by actors – and directors who do not know what they are doing and then swan off once a production is up and running, leaving all the hard salvage work to a floundering cast.
Along with highly resonant accounts of waiting in the wings, there is also a wonderful section considering whether actors breathe life into their characters or whether it is the roles that vivify actors, a look at the psychology of such artists.
The driving rhythms and internal rhymes of Berkoff’s script, along with many phrasings, conjure Shakespearea and his characters are referenced often, with some irony: a call for the theatre not to be filled with ancients only – on stage and in the audience – and a cry against the slew of revivals of dead playwrights’ works ring to continued echoes of the greatness of the most famous classical characters and how these are what actors should be playing, these are what inspire cast and audience alike to artistic heights and changing worlds.
Berkoff strikes out at actors’ loss of power within theatre, while presenting plenty of their foibles too. Playwrights are given some voice of their own, but directors are not so evenly treated – particularly in the thin defence of them given by the Sarah character, when there are plenty of actors who would speak more strongly for a director’s role. The gripes about ‘ancients’ treading the boards seem more skewed against women than men – possibly not in intent, but in presentation – and derogatory language, in Berkoff’s usual scatological vein, is less varied for women than men, with ‘tart’ standing out as over-used.
For a Berkoff production, An Actor’s Lament strikes with less immediately powerful a punch than one might expect, but then works on quietly afterwards. This may be connected to Berkoff’s age / development and signify a different style of struggle, one which – while still spiked with plenty of bile and bite – carries some sense that he may be fighting a losing battle. For the sake of rich, stimulating and enhanced-beyond-the-ordinary-theatre, one hopes he is not.