Steven Berkoff On … The Waterfront & the Working ManDate: 26 February 2009
Steven Berkoff has directed the stage adaptation of the 1954 Oscar-winning film On the Waterfront, which is now transferred to the West End’s Theatre Royal Haymarket, where Berkoff has also joined the cast as psychopathic mobster Johnny Friendly opposite Simon Merrells as Terry Malloy, the part immortalised on screen by Marlon Brando. A renowned playwright, as well as an actor and director, who started his career in repertory theatre before founding his own production company, East Productions, Berkoff’s many plays include East, West, Salome, Decadence, Kvetch, The Secret Love Life of Ophelia, Requiem for Ground Zero, Sit and Shiver, Shakespeare’s Villains and Messiah, his last West End offering, which ran at the Old Vic in 2003.
I’ve been wanting to stage On the Waterfront for the last ten years. I was about 15 when I saw the film, and it had a huge effect. Over the years, of course, it’s gathered momentum and become a legend. I think it’s stood the test of time because of the clarity and definition of the text. It was written by a master, Budd Schulberg, and some of the writing soars, its language was of a quality we’d seldom heard before on screen. What Budd did was to show that the real poetry of a man or a woman’s heart is not do with education and culture – it’s rough, it’s raw but still poetic.
People quote it because it’s so powerful. It’s almost like America’s Hamlet. When Terry Malloy says “I could had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody”, he’s reflecting on his life in a Hamlet-ish way. And when the priest speaks on behalf of the man who has been murdered, it’s one of the most moving speeches of all time. There’s this tremendous moral spirit and an incredible expression on the highest level of the passions and agonies of the common man and woman. That’s what lifts it.
Budd Schulberg wrote a novel and another stage version of the story in which Terry dies at the end. That’s probably a realistic ending, but making Terry die would be signing a death warrant on the production. Terry getting up at the end, that is the myth that’s become enshrined in the public consciousness, and it’s impossible to change a myth. We know he gets up, we love that determination and that phenomenal last walk, with the men following him. That’s far too powerful a symbol to relegate for the sake of creating another martyr. We’ve got enough martyrs.
This version of On the Waterfront is totally faithful to the film. What we’ve done is to recreate the film as much as we can, and try to lose nothing. You see the death of the guy falling from the building where he had been pushed. You even see the very important pigeon scene, that for me is one of the wows. But the play is a different experience altogether. On screen, some of the story gets a little bit lost as you go from one big action to the next big action. The play revitalises the story, it’s like getting inside the film.
If I have a trademark style, I suppose it’s about physicality, a simplicity of communication both orally and physically. That’s very important. To make the actors a fundamental part of their environment, to use every actor on that stage to the maximum of their ability and to express something to the utmost of its potential - sometimes literally, sometimes symbolically – so you can go no further with it. If anything, that’s what they’d call the Berkovian style.
I wanted Simon Merrells to play Terry Malloy and not only because he gave the best reading. He brings a regal stance to the role. British actors are very good at playing outside themselves. If you’re already a New Yorker or American, you don’t have to struggle so much. There’s something about an actor approaching it from the outside that gives it a certain resonance. The producer was gung-ho about getting a star. I understand, they need that to sell tickets. But I’ve never liked working with stars, I’ve always had problems with stars - not all of them, but there’s usually some kind of problem. I’d rather work with a good actor. When Simon gave his reading, I thought, “my god, he’s born to play the role”.
- Steven Berkoff was speaking to Terri Paddock
On the Waterfront is running at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, where it opened on 12 February 2009 (previews from 28 January) and booking for a limited season until 25 April. The West End transfer follows 2008 runs in Nottingham and Edinburgh, for which it was nominated for Best Regional Production in this year’s Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice Awards.
** DON’T MISS our Whatsonstage.com Outing to ON THE WATERFRONT on 19 March 2009 – including FREE drink, FREE programme & EXCLUSIVE post-show Q&A