An Actor’s Lament
3 stars ***
Assembly Hall (Venue 35)
AT THE ASSEMBLY HALL on the Mound, a Fringe legend is walking the stage; but alas, this is not the Steven Berkoff of forty years ago, when his fiercely physical performing style – and the bold, baroque poetry of his own writing – seemed to have something radical to say about good and evil, crime and legality, greed and lust in a newly afflluent Britain. In the world beyond the stage, greedy power-holders grow more absurd and arrogant by the hour; but Berkoff’s focus has narrowed, in his 70’s, and his subject in this play is nothing but theatre – not theatre as a metaphor for life, but British theatre as a kind of club, with its preening stars, its grumbling malcontents, and its hard-working ordinary members.
So for an hour or so, Berkoff struts and frets on stage, together with delightful fellow-performers Jay Benedict and Andree Bernard; Benedict plays a successful playwright, Bernard plays a delicious and dancer-like actress, and Berkoff – in black, with snakeskin shoes – naturally plays an actor who also writes. The tradition of the actor’s complaint is a long one in theatre, and Berkoff carries it off in charismatic style, as his character rails against critics and directors, and stages a long dispute between writer and actors, as to who most needs whom. Sometimes, his blank-verse text sounds like Shakespeare, sometimes like that other great actor-playwright Moliere; and the show has a fine flourish of kinetic wit about it, as the actors fly into passions both real and fictional, and then pause abruptly for a cigarette, a gossip, even a bit of sex.
And does any of it matter? Not a bit. Berkoff’s view of theatre is old-fashioned, and his litany of complaint absolutely predictable, to the point where he himself seems inclined to send it up. If you are a member of that army of dedicated thespians who descend on Edinburgh at Festival time, you may find An Actor’s Lament amusing. But if you see theatre as an art-form with any significance beyond itself – any power to address real dilemmas, real crises, real contemporary lives – then there are literally hundreds of shows in Edinburgh this month that you should see, before you spend any time on the little and inward-looking world that Berkoff chooses to inhabit here.