Theatregoers at our sold-out Whatsonstage.com Outing on Thursday (19 March 2009) to Steven Berkoff’s stage adaptation of the 1954 Oscar-winning film classic On the Waterfront at the West End’s Theatre Royal Haymarket were treated to an exclusive post-show discussion with Berkoff and Simon Merrells, who tackles the starring role immortalised on screen by Marlon Brando. In On the Waterfront, New Jersey ex-prize fighter turned longshoreman Terry Malloy comes up against his corrupt, Mob-ruled union bosses. After being implicated in a murder, Terry finds support in the form of a streetwise priest and the love of the dead man’s sister.

This stage version of On the Waterfront is conceived and directed by Berkoff and written by the original screenplay’s author Budd Schulberg with Stan Silverman. In the West End, Berkoff himself stars as mobster Johnny Friendly, alongside Simon Merrells as Terry "coulda been a contender" Malloy. The production continues its limited season at the Haymarket until 25 April 2009.

Last night’s discussion took place in the theatre immediately after the performance and was chaired by show producer Julius Green from Bill Kenwright Ltd. For more feedback, visit our Outings Blog and for details of upcoming events, click here. Edited highlights from the Q&A follow …

On developing the script

Steven Berkoff: I was doing another play and I was in the office of the director and on the desk - I just happened to glance because being in the director’s office you take advantage of that fact, opening drawers - and there was this script. I was astonished and not only astonished but I thought, what an extraordinary idea. I read the script and I could see there were flaws in it because Budd Schulberg had adapted it from the film and it needed really working on. But I thought it was sufficiently exciting, and a sufficiently powerful piece to work on it.

It was written very stagely. We had to really shake the script to get rid of the junk and the excess. The script had very little to do with what we are doing … The movie is what I wanted to show and in every scene we are referring to the film. The people walking continuously were in the film, people are always in the street. That was the key - the people are always seen moving, always around the background, around the street. None of that was in the script.

On following in Marlon Brando’s footsteps

Simon Merrells: I am in Marlon Brando’s shadow, but it's an inspiring shadow and the film is very inspiring. I think it’s (a problem) more in other people's minds. Other people think, you must have been terrified, it must have been awesome to have to take that (role) over, but for little old me, it was just this massive opportunity, this beautiful part working with Steven and such fun discovering the way to tell the story. The character, Terry, he's been described as the working-class American Hamlet: the conscience and its awakening, it's just such a beautiful character…

Training with a boxer was great. He came and saw a matinee and said, “Si, I thought you'd be crap, I said that Steven, didn't I? I said he'd be crap”. I said, yes, that's because when I was in the gym with you, I was crap, I was just Simon that was training with you. But on stage I have to believe I'm this guy. And it was quite a process to get there. I did get better in the gym. The last session I did with the boxer, he said you're sparring with me today, Simon - bang. It was quite an education.

On the Berkovian style

Berkoff: You couldn't use ordinary actors for this, not the common or garden variety actors we have in England, great as they are. This is the waterfront, it’s New York, it’s working class, and there's a kind of brutish strength about these men … Dancers, acrobats, mimes, singers even. They have to do everything to be part of the company. They do they love the mime and movement. It seems to suggest to me an enlightened actor that loves the use of his body and movement.

Merrells: It seems to me very natural, how we are telling this. I remember the first day of the first workshop, thinking, how are we going to throw this guy off the building? And we tried different things. The chorus lifted him up and that was ungainly and didn’t quite work, but then through that came this simple idea of someone falling through the air, going like that (arms flailing), everyone’s looking up. You trust the audience that, if you do it right, they'll think, he's falling. That's telling the story ...

Steven is there, Steven is the maestro, but we are required too. That is the thing working with Steven. It's not a case of, where do I come in? You’re required to dive in and use your imagination and add it to everyone else’s to come up with something. So I found it a very natural process. The wonderful thing about this production is I feel there are moments of lovely absolute naturalism with this counterpoint of the style. I feel it works.

On the play’s relevance today

Berkoff: I think this play is always very relevant, because it deals very strongly with ethics and personal responsibility, to take a stand against what you feel is corrupt or unjust. Today there’s an unveiling of corruption in our country that has rarely been seen before. We have institutes that we used to bow to that were so respectable that it was like, the church, and of course, you know I am talking about the banks. When I saw this group of men lined up and being very cleverly cross-examined by a member of parliament - shifty shaky, uncertain – it reminded me of these same waterfront gangsters being investigated by the Waterfront Crime Commission. In truth, this (story) does have echoes today, and certainly of this shameful and unmitigated corruption we're seeing in this great country of ours that used to pride itself on having a very strong ethical stance. So I think this play is very relevant for today.

On the lack of ‘big plays’ being written

Berkoff: There is a kind of resistance to writing about the current situation and I don't think it is even that conscious. There is resistance because theatre is very much pitched in verbal dialogue, wit, personality. We've got too much involved with the social family network, plays about the interrelationships within families, problems and conflicts, and small plays with four to five people, witty psychological plays. We are lacking the big plays. It's partly a reluctance and maybe it’s partly that there's not an identification with these things by the people that run the theatres. Their upbringing has been very solid, middle-class, English, Oxbridge educated, academic. And I don't think they could give a monkey's fart about the great social conflicts of our time.

- by Laura Norman