Monday, 28 September 2015

INTERVIEW with Steven Berkoff

WHAT would you have done had you been living in Baghdad in 2003 and opened the front door to find Saddam Hussein had invited himself round for supper?
That is the premis for satirical new play Dinner With Saddam by Anthony Horowitz which has just opened at the Menier Chocolate Factory.
It stars writer, actor and director Steven Berkoff who makes his Menier debut as the late dictator.
It’s a meaty role for Steven and one he’s relishing although he admits it’s a bit of a tough gig.
“I am enjoying it but it's a large role and exhausting with a large complicated text,” he tells me. “But audiences have been very responsive.
"I'm also pleased to be here at the Menier. It's a nice fringe theatre with a pleasant atmosphere and a great bar.
"It does exciting and intelligent work - it's not at all poncey - and it's run by a good producer which is key, so it's a pleasure to be here and in such a great production."
Indeed he speaks very warmly of the play which he describes as both funny and clever and which he hopes that people who come to see it will be "enlightened and surprised" by what comes out of it.
"It's based on Saddam's life and the last month in Iraq before the bombing by the Americans," he says.
"Something Saddam did which was most unusual was to go around the city with his bodyguards and stop in any particular house and either have supper there or sometimes stay the night as well.
"It was a clever ploy because it was not only a way he could meet the people but also he could avoid detection by the Americans.
"The play is about one of those evenings. He arrives at the house of a normal family who are terrified but excited about his arrival.
"We see all their grievances and petty passions and we see the effect his visit has on them and on him.
"It's got so much humour and I'm enjoying being part of it very much."
It is the first time in a while that Steven has been seen on stage but he says it was the quality of the writing that excited and attracted him as well as the challenge of playing such a character.
And it’s not the first time he’s played a somewhat villainous character – fans will remember him as Lieutenant Colonel Podovsky in Rambo: First Blood Part II, General Orlov in the James Bond film Octopussy, Victor Maitland in Beverly Hills Cop and Adolf Hitler in the TV mini-series War and Remembrance.
“It’s the roles that come up,” he says simply. “Casting directors see you as having a certain style. They say ‘oh he plays tyrannous characters' and they have this idea that this is what you do. It's just how it's been but I can play anything.
"However, this is the first new play I have done in many years as I tend to write my own plays," he adds.
"The standard of play writing these days for me is not very interesting but this was amazing. Other plays that have come along recently have not been interesting enough for me in terms of breadth and scope.
"This was well written and had incredible speeches with a passion, dynamic and fury which is so unusual. That's what appealed to me."
And he says that the level of detail that Anthony Horowitz went into with the background to what went on before the Gulf War has given him a new perspective on Saddam.
"He was a fascinating character," he says. "Although I knew a bit about him from what I'd learnt from the media, reading the play has been a lesson and very interesting.
"Anthony has done so much research and has written the play skilfully to show both sides so of course I do feel differently about Saddam.
"In the play it tells of how America supported him in the war with Iran and supplied him with cluster bombs and germ warfare like bubonic plague - truly horrible things.
"He was also a psychotic dictator, an exuberant, bombastic and arrogant man, but there was an element in him which not many people know about and that is that he did some good things for the Iraqi people.
"For example he was very keen on women getting an education.
"In many countries women are kept in the background but Saddam insisted they go to university. He was also brave and a great reformer and wanted to help people and ensure everyone had some degree of their own civil rights which is fascinating."
So what would Steven do if Saddam had ever come round to his place for supper I wonder.
“We would not have been in England, we would have been in Baghdad but yes, I would have invited him in," he says.
"My partner Clara would have made him a lovely meal and we would have chatted of course.
“I think it would have made for a very interesting evening.”

Dinner With Saddam is on a the Menier Chocolate Factory, Southwark Street until November 14. Tickets from £35. Visit or call the box office on 020 7378 1713.

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