After Elia Kazan's film On the Waterfront, a superb vehicle for Marlon Brando as the washed-up, ex-boxer bum Terry Malloy, you might have expected a flood of theatrical presentations. Steven Berkoff was astonished to find that the rights of the script hadn't been picked up and, after lengthy negotiations with the author of the original screenplay, 93-year-old Budd Schulberg, he has been able to bring it to the Edinburgh stage in a thrilling production by Nottingham Playhouse.
Berkoff's extraordinarily physical retelling of the story of the dangerous New York underworld – in which the lives of the longshore dockmen are dominated by powerful mobsters – is riveting. It's a compelling study in slow motion, as the story unravels with stylised fight sequences, vivid tableaux, balletic crowd scenes and graphic mime.
No one, you might think, could touch Brando in the role of Malloy, the drifting young man who has learnt to play "D and D" (deaf and dumb) to the violent thuggery of the Mob-connected union boss. In fact, Simon Merrells brings his own brand of studied vulnerability and sullen pride to the part, which comes to life after he falls for Edie Doyle, the sister of the latest murder victim.
Edie, given a nervily bright portrayal by Coral Beed, proves steelier than she looks. And in the famous "I coulda been a contender" scene between the two Malloy brothers (with Robin Kingsland playing Charley "The Gent" Malloy), the two actors make a tightly coiled double act. Vincenzo Nicoli, too, mixes toughness with tenderness as the crusading Catholic priest.
Whether as grubby bean-counters or puffed-up pigeons, as desperate dockers or as sneering camel-coated mobsters, the dozen-strong ensemble gets under your skin. The speaking needs some work, however. John Forgeham bawls like a pantomime villain and over-gesticulates as chief mobster Johnny Friendly.
But it's the visual language that shouts loudest here, and draws you in. A silhouette of the Statue of Liberty, outstretched arm wielding a hook, looms over the bare, sombrely lit stage, which – with no props and little set save a few chairs – is left to the imagination. The hook suggests both the hooks used by the workers to unload the banana boats and the hook of corruption from which the dockers dangle helplessly.
Kazan had Leonard Bernstein as composer, Berkoff has Mark Glentworth. His almost continual underscoring, an evocative and tension-creating soundscape of jazz and blues, is heightened by a live drummer adding a brittle rhythmic tension to a production that seldom slackens its grip in pace and intensity.
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