Neil Cooper

“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 Steven Berkoff classics including Decadence, Greek, East and Agamemnon.

Her fearless embodiment of Berkoff’s street-smart poetry transforms it into a ferocious set of miniatures that makes for an intimate and at moments unsettling experience. Or at least it did the last time Berkoff’s Women was in Scotland just shy of 20 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 become a regular in EastEnders while on stage she appeared in 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 20 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.”

Berkoff’s Women came about following a suggestion from Berkoff himself, with whom Marlowe worked over 20 years. “He said I could take the power back into my own hands and travel round with it. I didn’t know how it would go down, 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.

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. I did some commercial stuff, 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 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 at the Roundhouse in his version of The Trial.”

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 deadpans.

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 cabaret rock troupe The Sadista Sisters. This was 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. “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 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 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’s own maverick career took her on a diverse route from Royal Shakespeare Company and EastEnders. In the latter she played opposite Timothy West as aging matriarch Sylvie Carter, who eventually came to a tragic end caused by 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.”

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.