On The Waterfront
What comes to mind for most people when they think about the film, On The Waterfront, is Marlon Brando’s brooding performance as Terry Malloy – the washed up boxer and longshoreman. It’s an iconic role that rightly won Brando an Academy award and continues to attract comment and adulation. But, the film is much more […]
What comes to mind for most people when they think about the film, On The Waterfront, is Marlon Brando’s brooding performance as Terry Malloy – the washed up boxer and longshoreman. It’s an iconic role that rightly won Brando an Academy award and continues to attract comment and adulation.
But, the film is much more than Brando’s role. On the Waterfront is a deeply theological film – a meditation on the insipid corruption inhabiting the urban decay of post WWII USA and the changes underway in the pre-Vatican II Catholic church.. Moreover, the film was conceived, written and produced under the shadow of the House Un-American Activities Committee; before which both director Elia Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg were brought as witnesses. This richness of On The Waterfront’s plot and political context still fuels debate today about the meaning and significance of the film (A New Look at an Old Quarrel Over ‘Waterfront,’ from the New York Times earlier this year).
Whilst it is impossible to recreate Brando’s performance, there is no reason why the film could not be adapted for the stage. In fact, at a time when US foreign policy has been forcefully trying to impose ethical standards on other countries, it is worth remembering that within living memory so many ordinary working folk in the US lived in fear of the mob, the corrupt end of unionism, crooked police, a paid-off judiciary and an overzealous political establishment (maybe the last one still holds today?).
Which brings us to Saturday night’s performance of On The Waterfront, as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival. This adaptation for the stage by Steven Berkhoff came with high critical praise (and a strong marketing campaign).
It was also one of the most flat, insipid and witheringly dull pieces of live theatre I have seen in years. There are a lot of reasons why this staging did not work.
Any representation of systemic evil needs to create a world where threat and menace always wait for and supervene upon the characters. The film version of On The Waterfront does this so well in part because its visual language is borrowed from Film Noir and also because of the explosively volatile personal exchanges between the characters (where any slight misunderstanding can unravel into physical and emotional violence).
This staging of On The Waterfront lacked any sense of physical menace. The staging was almost completely prop-less, which forces other aspects of the performance to make up for the lack of physical objects on stage. This relies on the actors “selling” us their movements as they imitate ordinary actions like drinking, hauling ropes or throwing punches – all of which seemed cartoonish in this performance. The few props that were used – baseball bats and a comically childish looking gun – were wielded in a very unconvincing manner, more as a gesture than a threat. Or, it depends on clever lighting tricks. However, the lighting was imprecise and the actors violated the lines of movement that would have allowed the lights and shadows to function as roads, or cars, or other parts of the urban landscape.
This was undermined further by the poor choice of music. On The Waterfront only really makes sense in a particular period of US history, between the end of the great depression and the beginning of the civil rights movement. So, the music needs to be specific, contextualising the story. Using Howlin Wolf’s “”I Put a Spell on You”” as the background to a scene where Union bosses beat up workers might be clever irony, but it undermines the power of the narrative.
The same could be said of the scene where Tony and Edie are on the rooftop – with the ensemble of actors playing the roles of Tony’s pigeons, complete with cooing and bird calls. It’s clever, witty even, but it undermines perhaps the most emotionally poignant and tender moment in the story; what should be a potent transition as we start to see into Terry’s humanity and the fragile hold he has on adulthood..
That was not the only instance where cleverness drained the play of emotional power. There is a crucial scene where two priests discuss how the church should relate to the plight of the dockside workers. Here it is staged with the priests both facing the audience, motionless, in spotlight, with a line of workers hauling on an imaginary rope.
It’s a visually shrewd setting, but it disembodies the priests, turning what should be a conversation and debate into a atavistic exchange of monologues. In fact, so many of the lines in On The Waterfront are treated this way. In the end they come across as abstract and worthy speeches, rather like the worst parts of an Ayn Rand novel.
There is little live theatre in Hong Kong and even less in English. The Hong Kong Arts Festival gives us one of the few opportunities we have to see big name productions like this. So it really disappoints me to say that On The Waterfront neither lived up to the hype or critical acclaim that preceded it.