Arms windmilling, energy level soaring, stage presence vivid, British actor-director Steven Berkoff has added his campy comedy routine “Shakespeare’s Villains: A Masterclass in Evil” to the Royal Shakespeare Co.’s “Macbeth” and the D’Oyly Carte Opera Co.’s “H.M.S. Pinafore” as another U.K. theater entry in this year’s annual New Haven-based Intl. Festival of Arts & Ideas. Berkoff is an often brilliant mime and offers flashes of genuine insight and humor. So let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he doesn’t intend his presentation, which is essentially an illustrated lecture, to be as condescending as it actually is.
Berkoff seems to believe he’s performing for an audience of teenagers utterly bored by Shakespeare: He’s eager to try anything, absolutely anything, to capture our attention. His performance is jokey to the point of undercutting himself, his audience and Shakespeare. He certainly doesn’t pay any attention to Hamlet’s advice to the players: “Do not saw the air too much with your hands.” He flails so much he’s in serious danger of flying right off the stage. And he minces outrageously when playing such female Shakespearean villains as Lady Macbeth and Gertrude.
Dressed in black shirt and trousers and performing on an empty all-black stage (all black is apparently de rigueur for Shakespeare these days), Berkoff uses no props as he lectures on Shakespeare’s villains and performs scenes to illustrate them. He opens with a couple of Iago’s villainous lines, going on to suggest that Iago is a character who didn’t receive the milk of human kindness as a baby, “perhaps because the milkman didn’t deliver it that day.” Thus we’re alerted early on to the shape of things to come. (He’ll also be performing this play in New London and New Haven as well as Stamford.)
With considerable technical skill, Berkoff sometimes plays as many as three or more characters in a scene at the same time, such as Hamlet, Gertrude and Polonius. But he almost always ends up caricaturing those characters, with many a wink and nudge, rather than characterizing them.
He’s particularly persuasive when explaining why Shylock must be played as a villain rather than politically correctly, but then overstates his case by playing him more as if he is Dickens’ Fagin than the character Shakespeare created in what was at the time a Jewless England.
Berkoff’s Lady Macbeth smokes and primps. He compares Bill Clinton to Coriolanus (he incorporates local and current references into his comic shtick, spicing it with bits of audience-insult humor).
And he makes a good case for both Hamlet and Oberon being villains; after all, Hamlet managed to casually kill off a goodly number of people by the end of his play, and Oberon was guilty of drug running and forcing Titania into bestiality.
Berkoff is no dummy, and there’s no reason why a certain amount of comedy shouldn’t be used to illuminate a lecture on Shakespearean villainy. But he’s relying far too much on comedy and far too little on villainy, which in itself is villainous.