My favorite room
Steven Berkoff

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 49, Winter 2016

Page 13

My favorite room
Steven Berkoff

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 49, Winter 2016

Page 13

My favorite room
Steven Berkoff

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 49, Winter 2016

Page 13

How Steven Berkoff made his directorial debut in a building with
a railway turntable – the Roundhouse

Seldom have I felt such an atmosphere as I did when I first walked into the Roundhouse. The majestic circular structure, built in 1847 for a railway turntable, is topped by a curved roof, which allows the light in from its crown, and is supported by 24 cast-iron Doric columns. When I first entered, it had a forlorn feeling about it, as if the very bricks breathed an air of loneliness. It felt so right to me, so natural, as if I had found a soulmate. Nevertheless it also emanated a strange power; the same way an empty cathedral does... Perhaps this would be my church? I really hoped so. It seemed to me that this was a place that could not be used frivolously; it must give sanctuary to works of theatrical innovation. It must not be used for trivia just for the paying the rent.

I had an amiable meeting with the playwright Arnold Wesker, who wished to convert it into a performance space. I spoke of my great enthusiasm for this building, but I had not yet had any experience as a director and my passion to play there was as yet a dream.

Prime Minister Harold Wilson felt that Wesker needed, first and foremost, a talented administrator. He chose George Hoskins, whose main claim to fame had been as the chief honcho of the Egg Marketing Board. I had begun work on my staging of Kafka's novella Metamorphosis, and so I made an appointment to meet Hoskins. He was a robust-looking gentleman with silver crinkly hair and a cupid bow mouth. Yes, he would like to have my play there. Alas, he could offer only July, a slot no one would go near given that the audience – and the performers – would bake under the theater's glazed roof.

But I was now committed as if my life depended on it. My friend, the architect Martin Beaton, worked on the expressionist set. We went to a money lender and borrowed our investment to pay the rent and wages at 49 per cent interest! But since I was convinced we would pay it back at the end of the month, I signed the contract.

Well, we opened on a hot July day fearing the worst, but, when I witnessed our magnificent skeletal steel set in the center of that hallowed building, I felt nothing could go wrong. We opened to rave reviews. On the last week we were blessed with a review from the distinguished Sunday Times critic, Harold Hobson, that went beyond anything I had so far received. Martin and I paid back our investment: the month's loan cost just under 5 per cent.

The Roundhouse was to be my home on two more occasions. Our second Kafka adaptation in 1973, of his seminal work The Trial, was equally successful, even with less enthusiastic reviews. By the last time, in 1980, George Hoskins had gone and our radical production of Hamlet was ill received by an unkindly press.

That was the last time our company performed there. I did approach the new administration some years ago, but now it's one-night stands, rock concerts and the occasional circus-style show.

But I cannot pass the building without seeing us all in the summer of '69. We were champions then and I have a feeling that one day we will return. The Roundhouse is waiting for us.

Steven Berkoff, the celebrated actor, writer and director, has appeared in three plays at the Roundhouse – as well as appearing in films and plays, ranging from the award-winning Decadence to his role as a Bond villain in Octopussy.

Roundhouse, London NW1; roundhouse.org.uk.

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