20 Questions With...Linda Marlowe
Date: 28 January 2002
Linda Marlowe, who brings her one-woman show Berkoff's Women to London's Arts Theatre this week as part of a UK tour, says what it means for her to be in contention for a Whatsonstage.com Award.
Actress Linda Marlowe has had a long and distinguished stage career, working with a variety of co-stars and directors on productions such as A Flea in Her Ear, Too Clever By Half, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Suddenly Last Summer, A Streetcar Named Desire, Virtuoso and The Theban Trilogy.
But her career has perhaps been most distinguished by her work with one person in particular - a playwright, director and actor all in one, Steven Berkoff. In the West End, Marlowe has appeared in six Berkoff productions - Decadence, The Trial, Hamlet, Metamorphosis, Greek and Coriolanus.
It was also Berkoff from whom she drew inspiration for her latest project - Berkoff's Women. In the one-woman show, Marlowe presents a compendium of female roles from some of Berkoff's best-known works. In addition to receiving rave reviews, the production has been nominated - and is currently leading the voting - for a 2002 Whatsonstage.com Award for Best Solo Performance (click here to vote).
This week, Marlowe brings Berkoff's Women into London's Arts Theatre for a second, limited West End season before continuing on tour. Never one to rest easy, she launches at the weekend a simultaneous tour for her other one-woman show, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Diatribe of Love.
Date & place of birth
Sydney, Australia in 1943. My parents were both English, but had been taken out to New Zealand as children, where they met, and then moved to Australia before I was born. When I was ten, my father - who was an actor - wanted to come back to England to try the bigger pond. I've never been back.
In a big house on the north side of Clapham Common, south London.
Central School of Speech and Drama
First big break
As soon as I left drama school, I got a leading role in weekly rep at the Connaught Theatre in Worthing. It was the ingenue lead in a play called The Pleasure of His Company. We had a rehearsal week and then played for a week. They then asked me back for another production shortly afterwards. I did lots of rep, including a season at the Birmingham Rep, and then got a big leading role in a play at the Gate Theatre in Dublin.
One of my first film parts was a small role in Beckett with Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole, which was a glamorous thing to do. I also had leading roles in a series of films that sold well in the Far East in the early 1970s - Big Zapper and Zapper's Blade of Vengeance - in which I was a female James Bond, sword-fighting private detective character.
Career highlights to date
The work I did with Steven Berkoff is one. We did some exciting plays together, including Decadence, which we did six times all over the world and three times in the West End. Also, working with the opera and theatre director Richard Jones, for two seasons at the Old Vic - I had leading roles in both Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear and Too Clever by Half. And now, of course, doing my own one-woman shows - I've got two successfully running all over the place, and a third one being planned.
In an altogether different vein, in the early 1970s I was part of a female rock group, the Sadista Sisters, and we had an album out and played the Reading Festival to 30,000 people. We were quite successful, and were one of the first all-girl groups with a record contract.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
There are two: Too Clever by Half with Richard Jones and Decadence with Steven. The first was a very inventive, wonderful production, and it was nice to be at the Old Vic. Decadence was written specially by Steven for me to do with him, so was a really exciting thing.
Albert Finney. I did a big television three-part mini-series for the BBC with him, The Green Man, in which I played his wife, and he was absolutely lovely.
Richard Jones. He has a very exciting mind as a director. He's wonderful at developing character and a whole vision of the piece. He put me in a space of doing things that I didn't think I could do. I had a complete rapport with him; he helped me to be better than I thought I could be.
I would have to say Steven Berkoff, as I'm so steeped in his work. We've done so many plays together. It's such a stretch to bring his characters to life on stage because of the density and poetry of his language; and I love the things he writes about as well. But I also love Tennessee Williams. My favourite part I've ever played was Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff. I also loved Mrs Venables in Suddenly Last Summer. I think I affiliate myself with Williams' characters more than any other parts.
What role would you most like to play still?
My biggest ambition now is to play Lady Torrance in Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending. I'd also like to play Alexandra del Lago in Sweet Bird of Youth, and Blanche DuBois again. In fact, I'd like to play any of the older women in his plays.
In your opinion, what's the best thing currently on stage (not including your own productions)?
Eddie Izzard in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. I love that play, and this is the third time I've seen it.
What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Give it more money! Celebrate the fact that art is important to human beings' lives, by making it an important feature in terms of funding.
If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I would love to have become a dancer - that was my biggest love, and what I wanted to do from when I was five or six. I trained in ballet up to the age of 16, but I was never good enough, nor the right shape or build to be a ballet dancer. So I decided to become an actress instead. And if I hadn't done that, I would have become a barrister. It's quite akin to acting, and law has always interested me.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be?
Mother Theresa - someone who devoted her life to other people.
When I was a little girl, it was Gone with The Wind. But more recently, Oswald Wynde's The Ginger Tree has stayed with me. It's a wonderful story about a single woman's bravery and courage, charting how her life takes a different course to the one she expected when she goes out to Japan. I found it very touching and moving.
Favourite holiday destination
South America. I've been to Brazil and worked in Bogota. I love the people: I feel a great affiliation with them. I love their spirit and passion and am intrigued by the whole continent. I want to go to Chile, and to the Andes.
How did you come to create Berkoff's Women?
It came about out of the doldrums I was in about being an older woman and not getting the kind of parts I wanted to play. Steven, being a friend and ally, had always said to me that I needed to do a one-woman show. That way you take the power over your career into your own hands, you are in control, and you can take it anywhere in the world. Then he suggested that I build it around his work. That was sensible, since I'd done so many of his plays. The hard bit, though, was to then go away and devise it as a show. With a lot of help from an actor called Tim Walker, we started compiling it, and making it into a collage of different types of women. As I worked on it, one of the most important things was to work on each character as if I was doing the whole play; and from that to let the audience see the metamorphosis from one character to another, and totally change the mood. That's what makes it interesting for them to watch, and me to play.
What's it like working with Steven Berkoff?
I always appreciated what he was trying to do with his company. He's a perfectionist and a strong character but also an immensely loyal man. Once we got a rapport going, he wanted to work with me. I was also strong enough to stand up to him. Knowing who you are yourself as you work with him is important, because he's very easy to imitate, but if you just do that, you are only producing a copy of what he does. He did a bravura performance, but I did a different kind of bravura performance, so I was a good foil to him but strong in my own right. That's what kept us working together for so long. I enjoyed the danger of it - it was like going into a boxing ring with a sparring partner, he always kept me on my toes, and that's why the work was so stimulating for so many years. That sense of danger continues now with Berkoff's Women. Even though I've done it so many times, it still frightens me every time I go on stage.
What's your favourite Berkoff play? Character? Line of dialogue?
Greek, his modern, East End version of the Oedipus story is my favourite play. It has such beautiful, tender love speeches in it. My favourite character is Helen in Decadence - an outrageous upper-class woman who is a wonderfully funny character, and I love doing comedy. My favourite line is hers: "I'll wear a fulsome, daring Chanel robe slashed to the thigh in black cashmere gathered from the bellies of baby goats."
What are the special challenges, fears & pleasures that you derive from performing solo?
The challenge is definitely that you are out there alone, with no one else to hold the audience. The biggest fear is of 'drying' - of going wrong and forgetting the words. Even though I know them, the fear is always there that I'll be standing there with nothing to say. I've done it nearly 250 times and I still feel that fear and danger. But on the other hand, it's a wonderful reward when you do it and know that it's you alone who has been entertaining the audience. But you also get a wonderful rapport with them: they become the other characters. And there's great power to going out and entertaining people by yourself. I couldn't have done it when I was younger. You need maturity and experience to be able to do it. The fear is huge, but the rewards are great artistically, too.
You look set to win the Whatsonstage.com Award for Best Solo Performance for Berkoff's Women - against stiff competition from the likes of Jackie Mason. Anything you'd like to say to the voters?
I'm honoured to be in such competition. I'm so thrilled and flattered that people have been voting for me, and I beg everyone to continue doing so! This show has been such a highlight of my career, but it's also very tough, so there would be nothing better for me to win an award for: it would be such an honour. You can win awards for being in plays, but for something you've created yourself it is a huge accolade. Thank you for having faith in me.
What are your plans for the future?
Because I'm a complete masochist, I'm now planning a third solo show. It's going to be different to the other two, both of which have been based on literary figures, Berkoff and Gabriel Marquez, because this is based on my own experiences. I'm devising it in collaboration with two or three writers. I have some amazing stories of what has befallen me over my life and the different eras I've gone through. But I hope that it won't stand up or fall on the fact that it's about me, but stand up on its own as an interesting piece of theatre. I hope to have it ready by June, and will start performing it in the autumn.
- Linda Marlowe was speaking to Mark Shenton
Berkoff's Women plays at the Arts Theatre from 28 January to 2 February and then again from 11 to 23 February 2002. It and Diatribe of Love will both tour the UK until the end of June 2002.