Hamlet has "To be or not to be," but the iconic line from mid-twentieth century Hollywood has to be Marlon Brando's "I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody." On The Waterfront, the original vehicle for Brando's method portrayal of the over-punched Terry Malloy, is resurrected in Steven Berkoff's stylish, stylized reworking at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. The "contender" line is delivered in the back seat of a barely-described but brilliantly-executed onstage car, complete with hoodlum driver and Gregorian-chanting engine chorus apparently re-enacting that famous Honda TV ad.
Slick, stylish. Yes, Berkoff's production is all these things. His trademark mixture of expostulating vocal drama and mesmeric slowmo movement and mime-technique is stamped large over the entire evening. There is no escaping Berkoff's vision, less camp than a Lindsay Kemp confection but no less classy in its execution. Definitely the Marmite of British theatre, Berkoff is either loved or loathed. On The Waterfront challenges us once and for all to decide.
The set is a steeply-raked acting space, over-watched by a vast off-perspective silhouette of New York's Statue of Liberty. Instead of a torch of freedom, this lady brandishes a longshoreman's hook, a vicious implement for snagging and unloading goods at the dockside which has doubled as murderous tool in many a 1950s B-movie.
On The Waterfront enters the seedy underworld of these longshoremen, overseen by the criminal post-War Bosses who ruled the unions and who, through coercion and threatening extortion, guaranteed rich pickings from helpless dock worker and visiting cargo ship alike.
We are introduced to Terry Malloy. Simon Merrells gives a devastating performance as the boxer-turned-unwilling-henchman who will do whatever his intellectually superior though ultimately honourable elder brother (Antony Byrne) tells him. Take a dive and he'll take a dive. Snoop on troublemakers and he'll snoop on troublemakers.
Terry becomes disillusioned with his union Boss when asked to coax another stevedore out of hiding. They were only meant to rough him up for snitching to the authorities. Instead, Terry sees the respected Joey Doyle lying twisted on the sidewalk, thrown from his rooftop pigeon-fanciers coop by Terry's supposed friends.
All is done at the behest of the Boss, ironically nicknamed Johnny Friendly. Steven Berkoff, director of the play, takes this dominant role. Berkoff and Merrells spar with each other, the irrepressible force of Berkoff's corpulent, posturing Boss facing the moral awakening of Merrell's rocklike Terry. There is no doubt, Berkoff is great in this role. Johnny Friendly oozes malicious camaraderie as he drapes his arms over the shoulders of his team, led by Alex Giannini's gloriously malevolent Big Mac.
As an ensemble, the cast are, to say the least, consistent in their stylistic interpretation of Berkoff's dream. Physical representation of smoking and drinking and counting money and beating heads with a baseball bat is wonderfully mimed, as is the comic genius of the pigeon-coop full of human pigeons who coo and preen in glorious unison.
Less assured are some of the New York accents which occasionally hint at Home County charm or West Country non-specificity. Merrells and Berkoff do not suffer such problems; neither does Vincenzo Nicoli as the honest priest, Father Berry, who offers to help the stevedores. Nicoli's impassioned speech as Father Berry touches just the right note of frustration and impotent anger.
With a running time of two hours and fifteen minutes, with a twenty minute interval, Berkoff's dream can be a bit of a somnambulist's nightmare. The slowmo movements, so clever when first introducing the narrative, become too predictable and repetitive. Flashes of dynamic action relieve the monotony, but there seems little doubt that artistic concept supersedes pace, and the play is nearly doubled in length by its slow physical delivery.
Even so, for the stunning performances of Merrells and Berkoff (Merrells looking hauntingly like a young Berkoff), as well as strong support from the comic-book caricatures created by the rest of the cast, On The Waterfront is a worthy evening's outing which reminds us that the 1950s New York docks were just as cutthroat then as the New York Stock Exchange appears now.
Terry Malloy ... Simon Merrells
Joey Doyle/Tommy/Jimmy ... Alex McSweeny
Charley 'The Gent' Malloy ... Antony Byrne
Big Mac ... Alex Giannini
Edie Doyle ... Bryony Afferson
Runty Nolan/Skins ... Dominic Grant
Moose/Barney ... Ian Gofton
Luke/Mutt/Sonny ... Alexander Thomas
J.P. Morgan/Billy ... Gavin Marshall
Pop Doyle ... Sean Buckley
Father Barry ... Vincenzo Nicoli
Johnny Friendly ... Steven Berkoff
AUTHOR: Budd Schulberg and Stan Silverman
DIRECTOR: Steven Berkoff
From: 28 th Jan 2009 to 25 th Apr 2009
Monday-Saturday 19:45, Matinees Thursday 14:30, Saturday 15:00
This review first appeared on the British Theatre Guide.
© Kevin Quarmby, 2009