Steven Berkoff and Budd Schulberg on 'On the Waterfront'

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Movies-turned-plays are often mediocre, says Caroline McGinn, but Steven Berkoff's staging of Budd Schulberg's 'On the Waterfront' could be a contender

  • Steven Berkoff and Budd Schulberg on 'On the Waterfront'

    Budd Schulberg and Steven Berkoff

  • On a bright February morning in the East End the sun plays on the Thames as it flows down from the City, past Cable Street where communists and fascists clashed more than 70 years ago. The 94-year-old writer who is sitting and watching the light ripple over the river is part of Hollywood legend because of his portrait of a different waterfront – one which belonged to the Hoboken longshoremen but was owned by the Mob.

    His account of their tussle was iconically represented on screen by Marlon Brando in Elia Kazan’s Oscar-winning movie ‘On the Waterfront’. Budd Schulberg is, with the exception of Karl Malden, the only one of that creative team who is left now. But he remains alert, intelligent and curious – and generous in his encouragement of Steven Berkoff, whose stage version of Schulberg’s script opens this week at the Haymarket Theatre.

    Berkoff’s production is the reason that Schulberg, his fourth wife Betsy and his son Ben are gathered in Berkoff’s Limehouse office. It is an area which, like the Hoboken docks that Schulberg roamed for months in his research, was a seamy working-class bed of immigrants before today’s gated communities took over. Berkoff is a limey, but his physical style of theatre and his aesthetic interests have been shaped by his family’s background here. Schulberg nods vigorously as Berkoff describes the way that ‘every city you go to, the slums are in the east’. And the two men’s families, each washed in on a wave of Jewish and eastern European immigration to a great maritime trading post – have parallel histories. Schulberg’s mother, Ad (who first encouraged him to write), arrived in New York via ‘Ellis Island as "a babe in arms". Her family came from Latvia, sought asylum and settled in the east,’ where she eventually met his father on the ‘Lower East side at an intellectual debating society’.

    As a story, ‘On the Waterfront’ is remarkable for its intellectual and political muscle. But it was a boxing connection which galvanised Steven Berkoff into actually doing a stage production of the script that he’d had ‘a little option’ on ever since coming across it lying on the desk of the director of the National Theatre. Their mutual friend – scouse ex-boxer Garry Hope – phoned Berkoff up and encouraged him to step up to this considerable challenge.

    While there are plenty of good plays that get turned into good movies, theatre adaptations of films are usually only spectacular in their mediocrity. Given the iconic status of the movie, you’d think staging ‘On the Waterfront’ would be a recipe for disaster. How could any actor play the ‘I coulda been a contender’ speech that Brando made his own (even falsely claiming he improvised it)? And how could you paint the broad social canvas on a bare stage?

    The clue, again, is in the boxing. Berkoff’s production – which was well received at the Edinburgh Festival – brings a live, physical language to Schulberg’s words. His ensemble – a cauliflower-faced bunch who flock and huddle around the stage in a stylised expression of mobsters, dockers and, very touchingly, Terry Molloy’s loft-full of pigeons – is like a grotesque Greek chorus or a bare-knuckle ballet. Their heightened theatricality is miles away from the Waterfront Commission hearings on which Schulberg based his script. ‘I went down there every day for 40 days until I understood all of that hard subject matter from the inside.’

    Nevertheless he delighted with Berkoff’s take on it, which he feels is the best stage version which has been done. Like Brando before him, Berkoff’s Terry Molloy (Simon Merrells) has been ‘punished’ in the gym by a professional boxer: though it’s to be hoped that he won’t have the same bad luck as Schulberg himself. The lifelong boxing writer and fan (the only non-boxer to have his name in boxing’s Hall of Fame) once sparred with a real contender. The result? A broken nose, and a scar which he can still point out to this day.

    ‘On the Waterfront’ is at Haymarket Theatre Royal.

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