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Power to the people

Kevin Berry talks to Steven Berkoff about Coriolanus. People either seek out Steven Berkoff or they do not, there are no half measures with him.

He has always been asked to play his film roles, never having actually courted Hollywood recognition. Joe Papp asked him to direct Coriolanus in New York and Jude Kelly has now asked him to direct and star in Coriolanus at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

The man with a reputation for abrasive and often caustic behaviour and some vehemently anti-establishment views is happy to be in Leeds and when I spoke to him in the first week of rehearsals his mood was engaging, enthusiastic and upbeat.

His Coriolanus is modernised with characters dressed for the most part in simple black, but it is modernised rather than updated, something Joe Papp encouraged. Berkoff is fascinated by Shakespeare's most complex political play, seeing many parallels with contemporary politics, both here and in America. As an example, he cites one political party disagreeing with the opposing party even though a proposed action is clearly seen as beneficial to all. He mischievously suggests that if Margaret Thatcher had ever bothered to read Coriolanus she would have been quoting from it endlessly.

Berkoff has striven to show a balance in the play between the plebians and the aristocracy. It is plain that Shakespeare favours power being in the hands of the gentry - "You sway on the side of Coriolanus repeatedly". Berkoff's sympathies, not surprisingly, lie with the working class. He has cut out the many derisory, belittling, many-headed monster references to the plebians and has further slashed almost a third of Shakespeare's original dialogue - "There's so much talking in it.

"There is a danger of events being dominated by the power not of the Senate, Coriolanus or his mother but the power of the Mob . . . I got rid of all the small part characters and made them an ensemble unit."

An ensemble company is the basis of his radical theatrical thinking; he strikes a parallel with football fans following a team and he wants theatregoers to watch out for his team.

How has he reconciled being director and star? Berkoff sees acting and directing as being two entirely different things but he has no time for directors who have never appeared on the stage, directors who deliberately widen the gap between themselves and their actors. He regards himself as a people's director, and a people's writer. Whenever he is on stage the production is the star. He draws a parallel with a dancerchoreographer such as Barishnikov planning the movements of a dance piece, then stepping into the role during rehearsal. His conversation is spiced with choreographical references.

Berkoff's Coriolanus is vividly expressionist, full of movement and action, a production in which the actors' bodies are the environment. He's very aware of communicating with a film maker's eye, getting the shape, sound and structure of the work just right, reaching the audience with much more than the spoken word.

He is confident of attracting young people; they make up the majority in his audience. This pleases him because he says adults suffer cultural guilt, they feel somehow forced to go to the theatre, young people do not. They have "a choice of the pub, dancing or having sex and they choose to come and see my work".

West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, until June 10. Tickets: 0113 244 2111.

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