To Shakespeare junkies, they are, hands down, an extraordinary generation. Having come of age in the 1960s -- a transformational era for the London stage -- these actors and actresses, with their devotion to the classics, their nonpareil technique, their high-voltage charisma, took up where their theatrical elders, Gielgud and Richardson and Olivier, left off, carrying on what has been called a new Elizabethan age.
Some of them, like Judi Dench and Ian McKellen, Maggie Smith and Anthony Hopkins, Alan Bates and Vanessa Redgrave, are movie regulars. Others of their caliber -- Derek Jacobi and Diana Rigg, Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins, Brian Cox and Claire Bloom, Ian Holm and Geraldine McEwan -- are lesser household names and remain primarily fixtures of the stage. Still others, like Glenda Jackson, have retired (to Parliament, no less) or, like Joan Plowright, got their second wind on television.
You're inclined to summon memories of these prodigious talents while watching "Shakespeare's Villains: A Masterclass in Evil," an exuberant if scattered one-man show that runs through Feb. 2 at Studio Theatre. Steven Berkoff, a London actor and director and another member of this generation, is your guide for a night of flamboyant soliloquies and piquant observations about making Shakespeare's evildoers tick.
Who else but an actor of his age (mid-sixties) and stage know-how could even consider this kind of evening anymore? McKellen and others have mounted similar touring shows, but after these guys hang up their tights, it's going to be hard to find world-class actors with the same commitment to the classics. (Younger British stars are increasingly usurped by movies, and their American counterparts have little interest.) Perhaps the mantle will be borne by Ralph Fiennes or, more likely, by the superb Simon Russell Beale, now in residence at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, appearing with Emily Watson in Sam Mendes' "Uncle Vanya" and "Twelfth Night."
Berkoff does not have the high profile of some of his peers; he's most recognizable from his malevolent contributions to films like "A Clockwork Orange" and "Octopussy." For his theater work, he's earned a cult following in London and, to a lesser extent, in New York. His stagings of classics are lavishly offbeat, as in a production of Oscar Wilde's "Salome" in which the dialogue was spoken at half the normal speed.
Rarely does a Berkoff production let you forget that people are acting! And his training in mime has led to a performance style of a sometimes overheated physicality.
In other words, he's an acquired taste. If your patience is easily tried by a showboating variety of Shakespeare, you might find "Villains" a mite hammy. But if precise, elongated vowels and grand gestures do not put you off, you'll be amused and enlightened by what this actor has to say.
Berkoff has the mug for malice. The buzz cut, the penetrating gaze, the hawkish beak: If he looked any more intense, he'd have the fava beans ready and your liver on the barbie. In loose-fitting black pajamas, he lays out his notion of Shakespeare's rogues' gallery as a multilevel showplace, with room for craven bad guys (Iago), grasping wannabe tyrants (Macbeth), sly scoundrels (Shylock), satanic reprobates (Richard III), even a surprising few whom most analysts would put on the side of the angels (Hamlet). His case: Hamlet begins as a mild-mannered student "and within six months he becomes a serial killer."
Placing the characters on a kind of cosmic couch, Berkoff concludes that love is the answer. It's the inability to love or to be loved that's a divining rod for villainy in Shakespeare. Harold Bloom need not worry, though. Berkoff is not doctrinaire about any of this; the ideas expressed in "Shakespeare's Villains" are for a term paper rather than a doctoral thesis.
Though "Villains" deals with some literary issues -- Berkoff's take on iambic pentameter is a high point of the evening -- this is not an academic exercise. Mostly it's an excuse for Berkoff to inhabit as many poisonous souls as possible. He's most compelling and entertaining as Shylock, the moneylender of "The Merchant of Venice." He argues convincingly about what he calls the "whitewash of Shylock," the attempt in many modern productions to make him a more sympathetic character, mainly out of sensitivity to those who view Shakespeare's creation as anti-Semitic.
Berkoff maintains that Shakespeare was not an anti-Semite, just a writer in search of a foil. Jews had been banished from England centuries earlier by Edward II, and to Shakespeare they were almost fantasy figures, Berkoff says. "He was looking for a box office success, that was all," Berkoff contends, adding that Shakespeare was probably trying to top Christopher Marlowe, who had recently had a hit with "The Jew of Malta."
The Shylock Berkoff gives us is a walking editorial cartoon: fawning, threatening, manipulatively feral. Even Shylock's act of counting money is expressed as a sort of animal appetite; the gesture is so stylized it's practically choreography. As with much of Berkoff's work, you have to be open to an idiosyncratic distillation of a great playwright's sentences. And that means sitting through a lot of exclamation points.
Shakespeare's Villains: A Masterclass in Evil, by Steven Berkoff. Approximately two hours. Through Feb. 2 at Studio Theatre, 14th and P streets NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.