Steven Berkoff wouldn’t recognise the Gorbals these days. As the iconoclastic actor, writer, director and auteur returns to Glasgow this weekend for the first time in what he reckons is at least twenty years, Berkoff certainly wouldn’t recognise the Citizens Theatre, currently undergoing a major period of architectural re-development. It was here he cut some of his early acting teeth in the mid-1960s at the Citz’s now long-destroyed studio space, The Close. It was here too where he took the never before seen photographs that make up Gorbals: 1966, which opens this weekend at Street Level Photoworks.
The images on show may be just across the Clyde, but as the Gorbals itself undergoes its latest period of regeneration along with the Citz, they reveal a long lost world that Berkoff captured just before it was razed to the ground.
“The Gorbals was kind of a no-man’s land,” says Berkoff. “It was in the process of being pulled down, and I spent days going round this bizarre and slightly nightmarish surrealist landscape that reminded me of the east end of London where I’d spent a lot of my youth. That area wasn’t only in decline. It was dying. The Gorbals was somewhere inbetween.”
Berkoff had come to Glasgow to join a company led by director Michael Blakemore, and remembers appearing in rep in Edward Albee’s searing two-hander, The Zoo Story, Creditors by August Strindberg and Play with a Tiger by Doris Lessing. In her personal history of the Citizens, Magic in the Gorbals, the late Cordelia Oliver recalls Berkoff’s performance in The Zoo Story standing out due to his ability to ‘charge his performance with a palpable sense of menace especially at close quarters’. Oliver also highlights Berkoff’s ‘potent presence that remains unforgettable, padding round the little stage like a caged tiger ready to pounce and kill’.
It was on Berkoff’s rare days off that he took the photographs that appear in Gorbals: 1966. On returning to London he developed them and filed them away in a box for half a century.
“When I looked at them again, I realised they really do tell a story of a quite vital moment in history,” he says. “Then I had them enlarged, and they became extraordinarily powerful and emotional, and I found myself really moved by them.”
Seeing Berkoff’s photographs today is like unearthing a time capsule of a barren and dystopian half-demolished landscape. Boarded up shop-fronts stand in gable-end tenements beneath rows of empty flats with smashed windows. Deserted streets look more like post-apocalyptic wastelands. If there are signs of life, they come in empty cars or abandoned doorways.
When people do enter the frame, they seem to be scurrying away, followed by dogs or else sitting in grim bars seeking solace. Only the local children, grinning into the camera behind railings or else playing in the rubble, seem unconcerned as they take advantage of what is effectively an adventure playground accidentally created by bull-dozers. Other artists may have done something similar in terms of documentary photography of the Gorbals, but Berkoff’s very personal sense of a city in flux glares morosely from every frame.
“There’s something nostalgic about looking at this derelict area of the city,” says Berkoff. “It’s as if its soul is being crushed out. The soul is missing, and everything is sad. There’s one of a man standing outside a pub, his body is slightly concertinaed, and he’s just waiting. Then there’s one of three men in a pub, all in different booths, isolated and lonely, and outside, all the shops are boarded up, and they no longer have any life. And you’ve got kids playing in areas where there’s been some pathetic attempt to soften the environment, but these aren’t places they go to enjoy themselves, but to kill time. The kids had an energy and a vivacity about them, and I found something in the Gorbals that was almost screaming.”
One image shows the Citizens Theatre itself, captured next to the bingo hall that used to sit beside it.
“It all fitted together. There was this kind of shifting of different cultures all living side by side.”
Berkoff went on to appear in Blakemore’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s satire of political populism, The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, with Leonard Rossiter in the title role. The production went on to the Edinburgh International Festival, and eventually onto the west end before Laurence Olivier drafted Blakemore into his company at the National Theatre.
“I never heard from him again,” says Berkoff. “That’s what happens in this business. They get a taste of you and they spit you out.”
Berkoff went on to carve out his own path, writing and directing adaptations of Kafka for his own company, the London Theatre Group. He performed early plays such as East – a baroque evocation of east end youth written in neo-classicist verse – at the Traverse in Edinburgh, and became an icon of British alternative theatre. He only visited Glasgow once for a production of his version of Strindberg’s play, Miss Julie, at what was a very different Citz.
“The Gorbals had changed completely,” he says. “I couldn’t find the Citizens. It was still in the same place, but everything around it had gone, so it somehow didn’t exist for me. All the character was lost, so I couldn’t find any connection to the past.”
It was while in Edinburgh that Berkoff met arts impresario Richard Demarco, who subsequently introduced him to Gorbals-born gangster turned artist Jimmy Boyle.
“He said to me about East, he said, ‘Your play helped me. When I was inside doing solitary, I read East, and I could identify with everything you’d written’. Suddenly this man who’d been in the pits of horror had been holding my little script, and it had helped him through.”
Now aged 80, after a lifetime of wilful individualism, Berkoff’s energy remains unstinting. A new play, ‘Ere, looks set to premiere in the autumn. In the meantime, Gorbals: 1966 taps into a rich seam of Glasgow history.
“I think we all have a vital interest in our past, and in our heritage,” Berkoff says. “It’s what made us. It’s what shaped our values. It’s what developed us. And most of the time we have no idea about it, because all the buildings are gone. All there is now is a lot of nightmarish utilitarian buildings. Seeing images of our past graces us with a strong memory of our home, and it’s so important to see that.”
Berkoff equates this with his own personal experience.
“When I see old pictures of the past, ancient pictures of places I didn’t know, but which my grand-parents knew, pictures of Warsaw and the ghettoes, I’m incredibly moved by them, because it gives me a clue about who I am, what I am and where I came from. Although my photographs are only a limited view of Glasgow, I think it’s important for people to see this period of when the city was dying, and to see what made them who they are and where they’ve come from.”
Steven Berkoff: Gorbals 1966, Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow, Saturday-September 16.
The Herald, July 12th 2018