BERKOFF'S WOMEN
New Ambassadors Theatre, London WC2/touring
Opened 5 February, 2001

When long-time Steven Berkoff associate Linda Marlowe took her solo show Berkoff's Women to the Edinburgh Fringe, it delighted even those who are not usually among the playwright's most fervent admirers. Although hardly a paid-up member of the fan club myself, I am happy to confirm, on the show's London unveiling for a single week at the New Ambassadors (followed by a week at Wimbledon), that it is a thing of beauty.

This may be because Marlowe is not nearly as pugnacious as Berkoff. She can certainly be confrontational, but even when, house lights up, she picks on a single front-row punter to receive the Sphinx's corrosive, misandrous speech from Greek, she combines the venom with both a kind of majesty and the continuing vein of playfulness which runs through almost all the 70-minute show. Her power and sensitivity of performance are such that, on marvelling at a whispered yet exultant rhapsody to sexual love, I quite failed to recognise it as coming from a play which I had seen only last month in a supremely "Berkoffian" but wildly over-articulated post-student production.

Almost all the pieces here are about sex Berkoff's women seem to be good for little else the only significant exceptions being the hunt sequence from Decadence and Clytemnestra's dignified yet impassioned justification of her conduct from Agamemnon. Yet Marlowe rings the changes, from serene to braying to stoical middle-aged East Ender to self-parodic little-girlishness, such that the theme never seems monotonous. She can be both daunting and alluring at once, all the while smiling with us at the absurdity of the whole business of coupling. Once or twice she teeters on the verge of luvviedom, but then along comes another character or a twist of phrasing to pull her back from the brink.

The final, longest, segment deserves special mention. From My Point Of View is a short story about a woman left on the shelf after a strained childhood and young adulthood, too desperate for love and too ready, in her bitterness towards herself, to settle for a fleeting simulacrum thereof. Its language is sympathetically understated, and given a performance by Marlowe to match; it proves that, when not being ostentatiously "poetic" or "challenging", Berkoff's writing can attain a remarkable delicacy. The smiling complicity of the preceding pieces vanishes entirely, leaving us with a simple nakedness of feeling.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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