Writer: Steven Berkoff
Director: Stephen Smith
Steven Berkoff’s plays Dog and Actor are each short pieces – played here together, the running time is under an hour – but they both pack a lot in.
In Dog, Stephen Smith plays a skinhead racist. We already know the type from his attire: tight jeans, white T-shirt, red braces and Doc Martens boots. He is also a dog owner, his ferocious terrier, Roy, ever pulling at his lead.
With no props, Smith relies on his proficiency with physical theatre to build this world, converting the Etcetera’s black box stage into a sliver of East London at the height of football racism, the “English disease”. Smith’s portrayal is vivid and vibrant, as his character navigates his world with his enraged dog always straining to be somewhere else.
Smith’s monologue as the hooligan is frequently interrupted with flashes of a portrayal of Roy himself. The physical transformation from human to canine – from beast to beast – is rapid and total, revealing as much about the dog as it does his master’s misunderstanding of his pet.
The references to football violence and the frequent uses of the P-word to describe any Asians date the piece. It also makes it hard to like the play as a whole: both Berkoff’s script and Smith’s mastery of the same invite us to empathise and sympathise with a character whose racist traits are given no counterpoint.
Actor is an earlier Berkoff piece (first performed in 1984, compared with Dog’s debut in 1993) and relies less obviously on Smith’s mime skills, but feels like we have a more well-rounded character to root for.
Adorned with crudely applied black and white face make-up, Smith’s actor walks on an imaginary treadmill as he passes other actor colleagues and repeatedly, unsuccessfully, auditions using Hamlet’s To Be or Not To Be soliloquy.
Smith uses a loop pedal to build up a rhythmic backbeat to the whole piece, a heartbeat which helps propel the entire work. Each greeting with a colleague produces an inward seethe as he sees the rest of the world succeeding where he is, literally and figuratively, standing still. Relationships with women come and go as his obsession with his work leads to marital neglect.
Repetition is the key with this piece; each handshake, each reunion with his mother and father builds upon and tweaks the previous ones. This portrayal of an actor whose failures are building in him an inhumanity, which causes him to fail harder, is hypnotic. Only at the end, when some of the connections are broken, does a chink of warmth finally unlock his Hamlet performance: tragedy begetting Tragedy.
By the end of the piece, the warm August weather causes the white mime make-up to streak off Smith’s face. Intentional or not, it is a parallel to the uncovering of the actor beneath. It is a fitting illustration to end an hour that showcases Stephen Smith as a physical performer who demands our gaze, and rewards it. One to watch, in many ways.
Continues until 6 August 2022
The Camden Fringe runs from 1 -28 August 2022