Arts: EDINBURGH FESTIVAL '99: Fringe

THEATRE Berkoff's women Assembly Rooms, Venue 3 (0131-226 2428) to 30 Aug
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The Independent Culture
IT IS no surprise that Berkoff's Women begins with a percussive smash. In the past, Steven Berkoff has identified sleeping playgoers as a sign that theatre does not put out "enough voltage in performance or acting power", so it makes sense that director Josie Lawrence has chosen to give the audience an instant shock to the mains. Freshly awakened, we fix our eyes on the tall woman clad in a svelte black number, slit up the thigh to emphasise the "flirting-is-too-subtle" fishnets. "I've been trying to find out what would entice you to eat me for breakfast," she brays.

The line is appropriately representative of the playwright who, rather than being "in your face", plugs straight into your arteries. Over the next one-and-a-half hours, Linda Marlowe skilfully negotiates the visceral course of Berkoff's notions of womanhood, going from money-dripping whore to scornful Sphinx and back again. Her performance has extraordinary range: vocally, choreographically, and emotionally. It is no wonder that, as the play progresses, each time she comes out of character during a scene change, she looks triumphant but exhausted.

To put Berkoff and women in the same title is automatically controversial. Marlowe is a striking example of his talent for friendship with women. But his rage against critical female journalists is also telling: "It seems that merely being female and having inherited the agonies of history and the natural rage that women have to amend the crimes against them, gives every little sourpuss a chance to exercise a taste for sadism..."

His later description of this as defence only makes the comment more interesting: for it reveals a man who - like many others - fears what he simultaneously admires in women. In Berkoff's Women, the admiration is allowed to shine more purely: and suddenly the "agonies of history" and their "natural [defensive] rage" become grounds for female dignity rather than for sadism.

Marlowe's switch between characters works because of her acute instincts for what different levels of emotion can do to both the voice and the body. As Helen in Decadence, her voice soars and swoops through the flirt's register, going from sex-beast to little girl, while as Clytemnestra from Agamemnon, her words are drawn up hollowly through the throat, potent with grief and fury. Each character appears to occupy a stage-space proportionate to their confidence: for example, as the Sphinx, Marlowe paces all over the stage, curling down and stretching up onto her tiptoes, while as Mum from East, she sits huddled in an armchair, elbows stuck rigidly to her side. Her performance is proof that whether whore or a saint, a woman can also be a virtuoso.

Rachel Halliburton

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