In sum, Lunch/The Bow of Ulysses is a very good example of Berkoff’s work at its best, and what highly skilful actors can do with it. However, one cannot wish it longer, and in some ways it might have been even more powerful as a radio play where the power of the language could resonate in the listener’s mind with even greater imaginative scope.
The world rejects not your soul, but your crumbling ambition.
This ninety-minute show comprises two plays written twenty years apart: the first tells how a couple met and formed a relationship and the second revisits it two decades later. The set and cast are the same for both though the styles of the two halves could not be more distinct.
The first play mixes awkward realism with surreal fantasy intercutting actual speech with articulated thoughts, and relying extensively on physical movement for its effects; the second, played out on the same bench consists of alternating embittered monologues by man and wife reflecting on the consequences of the intervening years of marriage. Here action is minimal and movement often restricted to little more than the flicker of mouth or eyebrow.
In many ways this two-hander is a distillation of Steven Berkoff’s style in all its strengths and weaknesses. The language is a work of artifice even at its most foul. There are elaborate, baroque flights of fancy of great poetic power, passages of exceptionally shrewd naturalist observation of human behaviour, and scorching invective that is as thrillingly precise in diction as it is wildly excessive in abuse, and often exceptionally funny because of the contrast.
There is also scope for parallel elaboration of this phantasmagorical material in movement and action of rare dynamism. But over a long evening these qualities can clot and choke dramatic and character development in cloying self-indulgent stasis and showy display.
In small doses, as is the case here, the insights and innovations are striking; but it is like hearing a rare musical instrument that makes a novel and invigorating impression at the start of an evening but palls over the length of a concert.
You can perhaps make a useful comparison here between Berkoff and Howard Barker: both delight in verbal dexterity and a shameless exploitation of the body and its functions, but in Barker’s best work this approach is tied into complex plotting and detailed delineation of characters in a way that is not so consistently achieved in Berkoff.
It also needs to be said that this is very much actors’ theatre in a good and a bad sense. There are not many actors who are up to the technical demands of this material, which requires an ability to shape verbal cadenzas of rare complexity and explore muscles that rarely get a workout in the English theatre.
It shows that Berkoff was an actor first and a writer second: he gives wonderful opportunities for both players to strut their stuff, chances that Shaun Dooley and Emily Bruni grab here with imperious, bravura relish.
However there is a downside too: we lose the sense of an overarching structure and dramaturgical logic amidst the fine detail and local colour of each exchange or soliloquy, and for all the verbal and literal gymnastics here there is more than a little repetition of theme and argument even in a short evening.
The set, the work of Lee Newby, is the same for both plays…..half-way along a pier walkway there is a bench, and a window behind opens out onto a washed out seaside view, a lifebelt and a waste bin either side, and planking underfoot marking the forestage. It could be the end of the season, but in any case the location is a no-man’s land, a neutral zone or limbo for temporary escape from reality and chance brief encounters.
What should be an open-air encounter in this venue seems claustrophobic, and that is just right for this piece. Costumes are drab, deliberately beige and frumpy, summoning up the hopelessness of the Seventies in seaside England. At intervals an authentically blended sound track of waves, gulls, funfair music and children at play intercuts with the conversation. Very good production values overall.
The opening of the first play is an excellent study of English buttoned-up diffidence as Dooley’s shabby salesman sizes up Bruni’s apparently prim and prissy housewife perched over her packed lunch, and decides to make a move. The alternation of their stilted actual speech with the spiralling fantasies of their thoughts is beautifully done. Shades of Alan Bennett here.
Then we move into a sequence of suggestive riffs of attraction and repulsion that set the pattern for the rest of the evening, as the characters are successively drawn to and disgusted by each other and betray their continuing need for connection and for another person to meet their needs whether sexual or companionate.
It turns out that neither player is a reliable or truthful witness whether to each other or to themselves. A final clasp of hands leaves the question hanging in the air of whether the gesture is a furious fist or a covering hand of protection, or perhaps both….
In presenting his characters in this way Berkoff invites the audience to reflect on how far their archetypal jousting reflects the stresses of all relationships that must rest to an extent on unrealistic expectations and aspirations. This aspect is particularly telling in the second play whose mythological title itself suggests that over-hyped heroic expectations are bound to lead to disappointment in real life.
This is a mostly static tableau – director Nigel Harman can do nothing about that – but the bitter, mournful speeches do a powerful job in skewering traditional gendered resentments – the man thinks his wife wanted a father rather than a husband, and the wife believes that the man simply wanted continuing pathetic assurance of sexual potency. The spread blame suggests a total absence of self-knowledge as the root of the problems.
The two actors change tone and manner effectively between the two plays: Dooley is all exuberance, bullying and self-projection in the first and has by the second become a maundering shadow of himself, devoid of ‘resin, pap or flavour’, blaming his partner for his loss of libido and get-up-and go. Bruni speaks now in a flat monotone of whining, defeated resentment at having exchanged her ‘caviar’ for his ‘potato peelings’. Pinter and Beckett seem close by, especially in the pauses.
As the lights on the pier sputter out, you can’t be sad to see the end of this play: as T.S.Eliot, who is directly quoted at points, says elsewhere, ‘humankind cannot bear much reality.’ In the end much of the eloquent recrimination is simply a projection or raging against the end of vigour and dying of the light that must come to us all.
In sum, this evening is a very good example of Berkoff’s work at its best, and what highly skilful actors can do with it. However, one cannot wish it longer, and in some ways it might have been even more powerful as a radio play where the power of the language could resonate in the listener’s mind with even greater imaginative scope.