The Theatreguide.London Review
On The Waterfront
Haymarket Theatre Spring 2009
The 1954 film On The Waterfront is a classic of American realistic cinema. Steven Berkoff is a director whose forte is stylised, exaggerated action and broad mugging. The two should not work together. But they do.
This stage production, previously seen at the Nottingham Playhouse and Edinburgh Fringe, is based on Budd Schulberg's screenplay and an abortive stage script by Schulberg and Stan Silverman.
Like the film, it is the story of Terry Malloy, New York dockworker who is slowly convinced to overcome his fear and misplaced loyalty, and testify against the corrupt officials of his union.
It's an almost Arthur Miller-ish picture of a small man forced to reach beyond his natural capabilities to achieve a kind of heroism.
(Replace criminals with communists and the film becomes an apologia for both Schulberg and director Elia Kazan, who had 'named names' in the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s)
Steven Berkoff keeps the play's focus on Terry Malloy, eliminating all settings and - except for a few chairs - props, defining stage spaces with shafts of light. The central action involving Malloy, his girlfriend, his crooked brother and a fighting priest is all played realistically.
But around them Berkoff has created a fluid Chorus - now dockworkers, now union thugs - who move in the familiar Berkoffian mode of slow motion, broad mime and grotesque mugging. And it works.
The background figures create a nightmare landscape through which Terry must wander, increasingly aware of how distorted and scary his world is becoming. And their monstrous quality contributes to a dramatic intensity that makes this little story really matter to us.
In the role that was in the film a keystone of Marlon Brando's mythic status, Simon Merrells bravely defines Terry by his mental and emotional limits, introducing a clearly not-very-bright minor thug who is forced in the course of the play to exercise his brain and heart in ways he never has before.
Merrells is at his best and most moving as he lets us see Terry struggling with the act of thinking - and at his weakest when the character's stumbling over his words sometimes seems like the actor's trouble with his lines.
There have been a few cast changes since the Nottingham and Edinburgh runs, most significantly Steven Berkoff himself as the union boss.
Since the original actor had been directed as a kind of imitation Berkoff, the change is not all that great. Indeed, Berkoff plays the monster as somewhat less of a grotesque cartoon, making him just the kind of self-parody a self-satisfied mobster might become.
Bryony Afferson is an improvement over her predecessor as the girl, and Vincenzo Nicoli remains a strong presence as the priest.
The creating and sustaining of the play's mood is greatly enhanced by an almost uninterrupted musicscape by Mark Glentworth mixing jazz and period rock'n'roll.
This is not a play of subtlety. It is written and performed in broad strokes that repeatedly take on the risk of going over the top or violating the expectations of those who idolise the film.
But, as with almost all of Steven Berkoff's productions, its power comes from that raw energy and occasional too-much-ness.
Here's what we said about the 2008 Edinburgh production:
It can not be surprising that this production, previously seen at the Nottingham Playhouse, is more polished and fully realised than the bulk of fringe shows. It is very pleasantly surprising that director Steven Berkoff has been able to filter one of the classics of film realism through his own highly formal and theatrical style and actually enhance the power and intensity of the story. Working from Budd Schulberg's screenplay and a stage adaptation by Schulberg and Stan Silverman, Berkoff shapes the secondary figures of New York dock workers and mob hardmen into a chorus performing in the director's signature stylisation of slow motion, exaggerated frozen poses and broad mugging. Remarkably, this doesn't clash with the realistic playing of the central characters, but sets the story of a dock labourer slowly working his way toward informing on the criminal mob that runs the docks within an intense and atmospheric nightmare. In the role that is a cornerstone of Marlon Brando's mythic status, Simon Merrells quickly erases any memory of Brando by capturing the essence of a man of limited intelligence and depth constantly forced to operate at the very outer limit of his abilities as he strains to push himself into thoughts and feelings he's never had before. Vincenzo Nicoli is powerful as a fighting priest, and Robin Kingsland fully shows the oiliness of the hero's gangster brother. If John Forgeham makes the mob head a bit of a cartoon, he has clearly been directed to do so, and it works. The only weak link is Coral Beed's performance as the love interest, and it is a tribute to Berkoff's vision and the ensemble playing that she does not seriously harm the powerful overall effect. Gerald Berkowitz
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