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Steven Berkoff and the Theatre of Self-Performance (review)
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Reviewed by
Robert Cross. Steven Berkoff and the Theatre of Self-Performance. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004. Pp. xiii + 240, illustrated. £45 (Hb); £15.99 (Pb).

Steven Berkoff is one of the major minor contemporary dramatists in Britain and – due to his self-fashioning as a bad boy of British theatre and the ensuing attention of the media – a phenomenon in his own right. Robert Cross' study focuses on Berkoff's "theatre of self-performance," that is, the intersections between Berkoff, the public phenomenon, and Berkoff, the artist. The book avoids the pitfalls of simplification. It neither looks for the "real" Berkoff behind his public performances nor proposes that Berkoff's writings only mirror his biography. Instead, Cross analyses the various "subject positions" (11) and "discursive strategies employed by Berkoff in the construction of his 'self' and in the creation of his oeuvre" (18). This approach results not only in [End Page 459] insightful readings of "Berkoff" but also in glimpses of the British theatre landscape and of British culture in general.

Steven Berkoff and the Theatre of Self-Performance moves chronologically from Berkoff's growing up in the East End as the son of Jewish immigrants, through his early acting career, to the foundation of the London Theatre Group and major productions such as Metamorphosis (1969), East (1975), and West (1983). The penultimate chapter analyses the plays dealing with the Thatcher years, mainly Greek (1980), Decadence (1983), and Sink the Belgrano! (1986). The book ends with critical readings of Berkoff's autobiographical writings.

According to Cross, the common denominator of Berkoff's self-perfor-mances is the paradoxical stance of wanting to enter the mainstream by posing as an outsider, an outsider who is both a victim of society and a threat to society. The initial act of paradoxical "bricolage" fuses Jewish victimhood with the working-class hard man from the East End (48). The young actor projects these subject positions onto Edmund Kean and Laurence Olivier. Their social backgrounds and physical acting styles resembled his own, but he rejects their position as high-cultural icons. The foundation of the London Theatre Group follows a similar pattern. While the orientation towards French total theatre inspired by Artaud and Barrault, places the group firmly in the 1960s fringe, Berkoff's position as the group's author, director, producer, and star performer resembles the practices of the theatrical establishment. Thus, Cross convincingly argues, the London Theatre Group mainly serves as instrument of self-empowerment: "At the helm of his own company, he could truly perform the 'Berkoff phenomenon' into existence" (81). All of the LTG's projects – from the early adaptations of Kafka and the Greek classics, to the "Cockney Carnival" (132) of East and West – served as attempts to win the acknowledgement of the mainstream. The stylistic elements of alternative theatre and of 1960s counter culture were appropriated not for their political implications but as means to secure the admiration of established theatre practitioners and bourgeois audiences alike. The self-made, dictatorial, actor–man-ager Berkoff comes across as Thatcherite avant la lettre (cf. 103, 159). In the plays of the 1980s, this attitude manifests itself as promotion of aggressive individualism and support for the new enterprise culture. In this framework, the criticism of the widening social gap in Decadence and of belligerent patriotism in Sink the Belgrano! are interpreted as resulting from Berkoff's lack of insight into the processes of Thatcherism (cf. 170) and from his wish to have it "both ways" (174). A similarly "schizophrenic" position recurs in Berkoff's autobiography Free Association. By claiming to provide an authentic, associative, and uncensored account of his life, the text offers the "monomyth" of "success against all the odds" (205). Everything that does not fit into this teleological narrative is covered up.

This criticism could also be applied to Cross' analysis. Although Steven [End Page 460] Berkoff and the Theatre of Self-Performance works with a high degree of theoretical reflection (using almost every available French theorist from Barthes to Derrida), the interpretations always boil down to the same monocausal pattern of the marginalized victim trying to enter the mainstream by means of provocation and subversion. Sometimes...