"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Thoughts
March 18, 2010

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.

Toni 14 years ago

This is not a film I know (little surprise there) but your deconstruction of the play is insightful: it’s easy to just see theatre as either good or bad without really knowing why.

But most interesting is the reminder of America’s recent past. It’s easy for me to forget, as one that’s lived in a stable and at least reasonably civil society just how bad things were in the US. It also helps explain why they are so suspicious of government and other organisations One might have thought McCarthyism would have pushed them toward socialism or at least a more centrist outlook. I wonder if it might well have done so if Russia hadn’t given socialist politics such a bad press. Or they might have just descended into civil war.

mark 14 years ago

Perhaps before you saw this play and wrote your tripe you should have attended an introduction to theatre course in either Canada or Europe. Your critique of this show is ignorant and naive. Your comments show that you are aware of only one form of theatre, naturalism, which is outdated and shoud be thrown away or reserved for film only! The theatre is not natural or real, it cannot capture the real world, it is ritualistic and sacred and the forms used in this world should reflect this. This production, in my trained opinion, was a brilliant postmodern production, one could even call it a pluralist production for its use of Brechtian, absurdist and mime (just to name a few forms Berkhoff employed) techniques. I do agree with you that the sense of menace could have been stronger but remember you are in a theatre watching a show, being spoke to (study some Brecht). Hong Kong audiences (and obviously critics) need education, TVB and its acting style is outdated, open your eyes and look at what is happening in the world of theatre, please.

Fernando Gros 14 years ago

Mark, thank you for your comment. Sadly, you’ve made a number assumptions about me and my background that really do undermine what could have been a valid critique of this review.

Your point about seeing this as a post-modern work, in particular, surprised me. I recall a panel discussion I attended, in 1998, following the Bell Shakespeare production of King Lear, directed by Barrie Kosky. One of the lines of debate that day had to do with how a post-modern staging challenges us not only because of the forms used (fragmented characterisations, pastiche of forms and symbolism, the blurring of high and low art, etc), but also because it will radically re-contextualise the play for our moment. This production didn’t do that at all.

Moreover, I’m not sure I saw much here that paid a debt to Brecht. The odd moment of non-realism, or mime is hardly a bold move in contemporary theatre. From costumes, to accents, to props to characterisations this was familiar stuff – mostly rooted in the original film’s style and aesthetic. There was no real challenge to confront injustice as we experience it, no fundamental reinterpretation of the story, no play on the relationship between audience and actors. We were just watching a historical drama with few if any direct present day moral implications.

Fernando Gros 14 years ago

Toni – I did my best 😉 It’s pretty unusual for me to post this kind of negative review. However, I try to comment on all the HKAF events and it made sense to explore why this one left me so disappointed. As you can imagine I used to go to see a lot of different kinds of theatre when I lived in London, especially given King’s central location and in Sydney before that (where the local companies sued to go for pretty adventurous interpretations, especially in 90s).

The most compelling part of staging this story now is the reminder of that murky recent history of US politics and corruption. This staging only replayed that to us, with nothing by way of commentary. But, perhaps that in itself is a worthwhile public service?

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