Arts & Edinburgh: My nights with Steve

Linda Marlowe tells of her onstage love affair with playwright Steven Berkoff.

It comes as a shock to discover, as Linda Marlowe takes her final question, that my tape-recorder has been accidentally switched to "voice- operated recording", a mode which makes the spools pause at every cadence. Typically, the result is to shred every sentence. If this were any other actress, the only option would be to cast oneself in front of the next available Edinburgh tour bus - but with Marlowe, nothing is lost.

Her pauses for breath have been so brief, her speech so unfaltering that not a syllable has been omitted. Linda Marlowe could yak for Britain. You can see why she has spent a good deal of the past 25 years yakking for Berkoff. Few other living playwrights demand so much in vocal strength and stamina. Marlowe has tackled many of his major female roles, most famously the upper/lower-class double-act of Helen/Sybil in Decadence. She has also twice played mother to him in his best-known stabs at Shakespeare - Hamlet and Coriolanus.

Now she's premiering a solo show - directed by her friend Josie Lawrence - called Berkoff's Women, the edited highlights of this species' unorthodox outpourings. For most people's lungs it would be the equivalent of a daily decathlon. She can do it, then calmly roll her own. You could just admire the physical prowess of this fiftysomething but that would be to overlook her principal achievement. Marlowe doesn't just spew Berkoff's words with gusto, she argues the case for them in her warm, rich smoker's voice.

Whether she's describing giving head to a waiter (Decadence), launching a vitriolic attack on the male sex (Greek), or evoking the solitude of a woman who wants "suffocating in the arms of a man"(From My Point of View), her performance not only shows you how the parts should be done, but suggests why they might have been written. For those who view Berkoff's lewd demotic and archaic lyricism as bombast, the show is a call for reassessment.

It might also act as a corrective to the widespread perception of him as a misogynist (not helped by his rebuff of women journalists' barbs - "It seems that merely being female and having inherited the agonies of history gives every little sourpuss a chance to exercise a taste for sadism," he said).

Some found his performance insulting two years ago at the Festival in Massage - in which he strutted around in drag as a housewife-cum-prostitute. ("You're not remotely like a woman," Lynn Barber told him at the time.)

Marlowe says: "I hope people will see what an amazing writer he is for women. These are strong characters, with a huge emotional range. If there is a thread running through, it is that his women are not afraid to be raw, sexual, coarse, and capable of having the same kind of fantasies as men."

Marlowe hasn't included a rape day-dream, a penis-envy aria or a confession about how women suck men dry but she insists nothing has been omitted on account of its content; structuring simply required tough choices. "Berkoff shows women at their most monstrous, but also at their most gentle and vulnerable. How many male playwrights manage to do that?"

Not many now, and certainly a scant number in 1972 when she met him, a decade after graduating from drama school. Marlowe, frustrated with the roles in rep and on TV, was "stunned" by Berkoff's Agammemnon and played a choral role in the Roundhouse run of The Trial in 1973. Marlowe, brought to Britain at 10 from Australia, established an outsider's affinity with the East End malcontent. He decided they had a future working together, but she was too much in awe. So she formed a rock-theatre group with two other actresses from his company. The Sadista Sisters toured for three years, and even played the Reading Festival ("We could have been quite big, I think").

By the time she came back, surer, stronger, she'd missed the chance to star in East and West, but thereafter "it was a love affair conducted through work. I felt I had to bring something of me to his plays. I've watched young people who've learnt the Berkoff style, but haven't inhabited the parts. What I tried to do was be a counterfoil to him".

Berkoff is all admiration. Dahling You Were Marvellous contains a spoof of their luvvy friendship, in which he pays her a compliment that says as much about him as it does her: "You've got balls!"

She's also had the courage to go in a direction that hasn't always been lucrative. "I could have made more money from a conventional career," she admits. "If I'm being truthful, part of me would love to be a Hollywood actress, but I've left it too late."

Berkoff could have helped, if he'd made the movie of Decadence himself. Instead, he succumbed to the need for a big co-star and chose Joan Collins. ("I said to him, `I quite understand but I wish you'd found someone better'. It died a quick death.") Her acquaintance has paid off in other ways. As a result of being given one of Berkoff's short plays, Lunch, she was invited to try her hand staging it at the Library Theatre, Manchester, in 1983 and has been successfully directing since. "I'm not sorry about the choices I've made," she says. "I've loved working with him."

Like her hero, Marlowe has every intention of continuing to put her time and effort where her mouth is.

`Berkoff's Women' is at the Assembly Rooms (0131 226 2428) to 30 Aug; `East' is at Pleasance to 30 Aug (0131 556 6550)

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