“I’m sort of scared,” says Linda Marlowe of her current revival of Berkoff’s Women, the compendium of monologues by British theatre’s arguably most singular provocateur, which she brings to the Tron Theatre for three nights this weekend. Over the course of the show’s hour-long duration, Marlowe embodies characters from early Berkoff classics including Decadence, Greek, East, Agamemnon, Sturm Und Drang, plus a newly dramatised short story, From My Point of View.
Marlowe’s fearless embodiment of Berkoff’s work transforms this into a ferocious set of miniatures, with the text’s rich street-smart poetry flitting between matters of sex and violence as it savours every sweary verbal explosion. Delivered directly to the audience in such an up-close and personal space as the Tron’s Changing Room venue, this makes for an intimate and at moments unsettling experience, with Marlowe, who was a key player in Berkoff’s acting ensemble in the 1970s before joining rad-fem rock theatre troupe The Sadista Sisters, in total control throughout.
Or at least it did the last time Berkoff’s Women was in Scotland just shy of twenty years ago, when Marlowe premiered it at the Assembly Rooms during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Since then, the show has toured the world, and Marlowe has gone on to create six more solo works inbetween regular gigs on stage, film and television. The last few years alone has seen her appear as a regular character in East Enders, while on stage she took on one of the title roles in the Caring Cross Theatre production of Colin Higgins’ stage version of his screenplay for the 1971 film, Harold and Maude. Why, then, is Marlowe scared?
“It’s a different age we’re living in now compared to twenty years ago,” she says, “so I’m slightly apprehensive. I’m thinking, will audiences be shocked by the language? But then I’m like, oh, for goodness sake, Linda, it’s never stopped you before, and Steven doesn’t mince his expletives.”
Marlowe was doing a workshop at a school a few weeks ago, and she was inevitably asked to do a turn. She chose to do the fox-hunting scene from Decadence, Berkoff’s portrait of class division in Thatcher’s Britain, but “I had to take all the f**** out.”
Then again, she recently performed Berkoff’s Women at a venue in England where “people in the audience were rather posh, and I thought they’d hate it, but they loved it, so I’ve no idea what people in Glasgow will make of it. But going through it again, in the fox hunt scene you’ve got these dreadful people talking about how there’ll always be an England, and how the paddies aren’t quite like us, I thought, god, he could be writing about now, because that’s all going on again with Brexit, which is a complete disaster. It’s completely disgusting, and I still hope it will all eventually fizzle out because nobody wants it, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Berkoff’s Women came about following a suggestion from Berkoff himself, with whom Marlowe worked with at different periods over twenty years.
“I still socialised with him,” says Marlowe, “and he said I should do a one-person show, and that I could take the power back into my own hands and travel round with it.”
Marlowe brought in director Josie Lawrence to oversee what became Berkoff’s Women and took the show to Edinburgh.
“I didn’t know how it would go down at the Assembly Rooms,” says Marlowe, ‘but it was a good show to start with because it’s so upfront, and it did empower me in some way. I think it made people notice me again, and enhanced my career. It also gave me a lovely sense of freedom to be onstage and to talk to the audience without the fourth wall.”
It’s hard to imagine Marlowe not being noticed, ever since she arrived in England from Australia in 1950 aged ten. Her father was actor Peter Bathurst, who worked with Peter Finch in the Sydney-based Mercury Theatre company before Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh whisked him away to help make him a star of the London stage. Finch encouraged Marlowe’s parents to follow suit and join him in Dolphin Square, which they did following six weeks at sea in “a terrible boat.”
By this time, Marlowe had already decided she wanted to go to ballet school, an idea compounded once off the boat and on the Liverpool to London train, where she went wandering and announced her intentions to a stranger who turned out to be John Hampshire, brother of actress Susan Hampshire.
“He said his mother had a ballet school,” says Marlowe, “and he lived in Dolphin Square as well. That’s what changed the course of my life. All ideas of me having an academic career went out the window.”
Marlowe enrolled in June Hampshire’s Chelsea-based Hampshire School, then on to Arts Ed and the Central School of Speech and Drama.
“I think I made the right choice,” she says.
Marlowe’s early career initially saw her tread a familiar path for young actresses.
“I was blonde and photogenic,” she says, “and my agent put me up for things that Liz Fraser might do.”
This included early turns in Gerry O’Hara’s sexploitation film, That Kind of Girl, released on DVD a few years ago by the British Film Institute. This wasn’t enough for Marlowe, who preferred to go into weekly rep to learn her craft. Marlowe also appeared onstage in the taboo-busting revue, Oh! Calcutta!
“I did some commercial stuff,” she says, “but I wanted to do something more exciting. Because I’d trained as a ballerina, I always had this idea about theatre being more physical, but there was none of that at the time in the UK.”
Someone suggested she should get in touch with Berkoff, who was exploring physical theatre with his London Theatre Group company. Berkoff went to see Marlowe in the play, Dynamo, at the King’s Head, before meeting her in a pub in Paddington.
“He was doing try-outs for Agamemnon,” Marlowe remembers, “and I ended up in his version of The Trial at the Roundhouse.”
This was 1973, the same year as Marlowe took the title role in Big Zapper, in which she played a kind of female James Bond Kung Fu expert.
“I had a rather illustrious career doing second-rate material,” she says.
“While the film was big in Japan, The Trial was “a baptism of fire. Everyone else had worked with Steven, but I hadn’t, and he didn’t tell you what to do. He just expected you to do it. We had a huge falling out and I said I wasn’t what he needed. He got someone else, then after fifteen minutes decided she was awful and asked me to come back. He turned up at my flat in Baker Street and stayed for eight hours. He wouldn’t go until I agreed to come back.”
One of the by-products of this was the formation of The Sadista Sisters with fellow alumnus of The Trial, Jude Alderson, Teresa D’Abreu and Jackie Taylor. The quartet toured the alternative cabaret circuit and cut an album.
“We started doing shows about being strong women,” she says, “and I remember Steven saying we were a little offshoot of the London Theatre group. Then we started going in different directions. Jude Alderson wanted it to be a total feminist thing with no rock star influences, whereas we wanted it to be more like punk anarchist feminism.”
Marlowe eventually left the group.
“We discovered that if we thought men were bullies, then we were just as bad bullying each other.”
Marlowe revisited some Sadista Sisters material in her solo trapeze show, No Fear!
“I loved being in a rock group,” she says, “but it was hard going back.”
Marlowe went on to play Gertrude to Berkoff’s Hamlet, by which time she knew how to deal with his more mercurial ways.
“You can’t be in awe of him,” she says. “You have to stand up to him, and that’s why it works.”
Berkoff has been in the news of late regarding his own new solo show, Harvey, in which he aims to get inside the head of disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein.
“He told me he was doing it,” says Marlowe, “and I thought, oh, you’re brave doing that.”
Marlowe hasn’t seen it yet, but is going a few days after we speak.
“You never know,” she says diplomatically. “People might be fascinated.”
Marlowe last worked with Berkoff on his 1996 production of Coriolanus, then withdrew to continue a maverick career that took her on a diverse route from Royal Shakespeare Company and East Enders. In the latter she played opposite Timothy West as aging matriarch Sylvie Carter, who eventually came to a tragic end caused by her dementia.
“I was offered the part when I was standing in the mud in Edinburgh,” says Marlowe. “It was raining, and my agent said that if I did it more people would come and see my solo shows. I said I was only going to do it if it was an interesting part, and that I didn’t want to be in it forever, but I got an iconic ending. People still come up to me and say, oh, you’re Sylvie. I tell them I’ve left now, but they say you’ll always be Sylvie to us. So there we are. Fifty years working and I’ve finally been recognised.”
Beyond Berkoff’s Women, Marlowe has plenty of other plans on the go. She wants to do a compendium of short plays by Tennessee Williams, and there is a staging of cyber-sci-fi writer William Gibson’s novel, Mona Lisa Overdrive, the third part of Gibson’s Sprawl series of novels that arguably reinvigorated speculative fiction in the 1980s with Neuromancer. Marlowe is doing a try-out of a piece which she’s presenting as Overdrive.
How Berkoff’s Women stands up in Glasgow remains to be seen, but Marlowe doesn’t sound scared anymore.
“I don’t think the pieces have dated,” she says. “Some of them show what women’s lives used to be like, but there’s a strength there as well.”
Linda Marlowe appears in Berkoff’s Women, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, tonight-Saturday.
The Herald, February 21st 2019