The Theatreguide.London Review
The Bow Of Ulysses
Trafalgar Studio 2 Autumn 2016
Two interrelated plays by a master of excess are presented in a mode more subdued than the author might have intended, losing some theatrical energy but compensating with new and subtle touches.
Playwright-director-actor Steven Berkoff's signature style in all three capacities is an unapologetic (but carefully controlled) over-the-top broadness. As writer, in such acknowledged classics as East, Greek and Decadence, he mixes a Shakespearean revelling in rich imagery and luscious-in-the-mouth verbosity with crudeness, raw passion and even obscenity.
He can encapsulate emotional volumes in a single phrase, like an unwelcome passer-by 'dabbling in your circumference' or stop you short with an image both evocative and repellent, as when one of the characters here describes workers at quitting time 'streaming out like diarrhoea'.
Lunch shows a couple meeting at a seaside bench and working themselves up from crippling shyness to overpowering sexual passion. The Bow Of Ulysses discovers the same pair at the same bench, ground down by twenty years together into a dispassionate and almost ritualised hatred of each other.
Both plays, I should note, are frequently very funny.
Both are built on a string of what can only be described as arias, the characters taking turns pouring out their feelings in Berkoff's rich and resonant prose poetry.
In the first, they trade visions of what coupling – sexual or romantic – would be like, while in the second he describes the vampirish way she has drained him of all vitality while she insists that she enriched his character and his life in ways he is too stupid to realize.
The more familiar Berkoff play these most resemble, both in the one-seat setting and the string of emotion-stuffed arias, is Decadence.
But Decadence, at least with Berkoff himself performing in it, had an energising quality that director Nigel Harman perhaps deliberately chooses not to allow here, somewhat to the plays' loss – the sheer joy, for both actors and audience, of wallowing in Berkoff's linguistic and emotional excesses.
Here the play's startlingly rich language slips in unexpectedly rather than being revelled in – which, of course, can be very effective in its own ways.
Actor Shaun Dooley finds a lot of comedy in the second play through dispassionate and deadpan underacting of Berkoff's extreme and shocking imagery, while Emily Bruni brings power to her rejections of the man's charges against her through quietly reasoned argument.
Such unspectacular moments would probably be lost were Berkoff directing, and Nigel Harman earns a lot of credit for bringing them out.
But there is no question that this more subdued approach to Berkoff loses significantly in sheer theatrical energy, and the second play in particular drags more than anyone involved could wish.
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