The makings of a villain

With movies such as A Clockwork Orange and Octopussy under his belt, Steven Berkoff is the favourite bad guy of both screen and stage. Now, with an upcoming appearance at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai, he brings his favourite Shakespearean villains to the stage 

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues, And every tongue brings in a several tale, And every tale condemns me for a villain

Richard III

“For the linguistic possibilities and the sheer sharpness of the analysis, it has to be Richard III,” Berkoff answers of his favourite Shakespearean villain to play.

The actor is speaking to Vision ahead of his performance at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, where he will attempt to bring Richard III, as well as five other Shakespearean villains, to the stage in an almost absurdly ambitious 90-minute one-man show.  

“Shakespeare definitely helps you play bad people without descending into a pantomime performance,” he says. “And that’s because a Shakespeare villain should never be played so obviously as such – when you look at them all, you realise that they’re very similar, they’re all motivated by a few particular things. They all feel rejected and lacking in approval, love or admiration.”

He is forthright on the numerous adaptations over the years, asserting that few and far between have earned his respect.

“Fassbender’s Macbeth was nominated for awards, but really the performance is not good,” he argues. “I know that the latest fashion is to say Shakespeare quietly so that it somehow seems more real and naturalistic. But all his speeches were quiet, mumbling. And I thought ‘use your voice man, have the guts to reveal yourself’.”

“Shakespeare is an orchestra to be conducted with great fury, power, delicacy, excitement and catastrophe. You want it to be all guns blazing, because that’s what’s exciting.”

And when it is, says Berkoff, Shakespeare can continue to appeal to generation after generation, young and old. He’s right that a good Hamlet will immediately connect, whether the role's played by Maxine Peake or Mel Gibson, because the intoxicating language and imagery transcends gender and time and allows for actors to show off their talents.

Typically contrary, Berkoff argues he’s not sure he’s ever seen an “amazing” Hamlet - but remembers that a pre-Sound Of Music Christopher Plummer was “great” as the doomed Danish prince in a 1964 television production in which Berkoff played Lucianus.

To play a great villain, he concludes, the devil is in the detail.

“When I play villains in movies I want to try and make them appear normal - otherwise they probably wouldn’t get away with the villainy. It’s about looking ever so slightly different, not clearly different.”

The full interview with Steven Berkoff will appear in the latest issue of Vision, out 19 March.

Tickets for Shakespeare’s Villains are available to purchase here.