For the second time in less than a week, a U.K. legit attempt to put a legendary Hollywood film onstage has floundered. On the heels of Trevor Nunn and Margaret Martin’s bloated “Gone With the Wind” musical comes director Steven Berkoff, grappling to find a stage language for screenwriter Budd Schulberg’s own adaptation (with Stan Silverman) of his 1954 classic “On the Waterfront.” But Berkoff’s theatrical tools are dated, and a cast of little-known actors struggles under the iconic weight of Brando et al.’s performances — not to mention the New York accents.
Schulberg and Silverman’s adaptation already had a checkered history: A 1995 Broadway production sank after eight perfs despite a top-shelf cast including Ron Eldard, Penelope Ann Miller and a pre-“Sopranos” James Gandolfini. Part of the problem with that production was scale: Because traditionally staged theater affords no closeups and helmer Adrian Hall took a naturalistic approach, the performers seemed lost on the grandiose set.
There are also basic concerns with the script itself, which moves from setpiece to setpiece and affords little opportunity for character development.
To address this problem, Berkoff wisely moves from realism toward something more expressionistic, starting with set designer Patrick Hughes’ curved backdrop of cut-out skyscrapers. The stage itself is bare; actors carry chairs on and off as necessary, and most other props are mimed.
Perf starts with actors walking onstage in unison in slow motion, their ’50s overcoats and fedoras caught in silhouette by Mike Robertson’s impressive backlighting. Enacted scenes emerge from — and sometimes take place in front of — passages of group movement.
This feels decades out of date: Ensemble-oriented companies such as Complicite have updated choral, movement-based staging into something more flexible and expressive than is achieved here. The slo-mo convention becomes wearing, particularly as it affects the actors’ pause-laden speaking patterns.
Berkoff, like Hall before him, is unable to overcome the lack-of-closeup problem; it’s very difficult to feel connected to the characters’ experiences. Scenes often start at a too-high emotional pitch that escalates into frequent exchanges of shouting. This is a particular problem with Coral Beed’s Edie, who plays most of her scenes in a state of high agitation.
Swarthy Vincenzo Nicoli is an odd physical choice to play the Irish-American Father Barry but carries off the pivotal “it’s a crucifixion” speech very well, in part because the scene is one point in which the melodramatic feel of Berkoff’s production matches the material.
The lack of a credited dialogue coach may explain an almost across-the-board problem with accents; some actors strain too hard at Noo Yawk-ese, while others seem caught between Brooklyn and Dublin.
Compact and bristling with contained energy, Simon Merrells has the right physicality to play Terry but never quite emerges from Brando’s long shadow. Part of the blame can be traced to the stage setting, which denies us access to the character’s emotional journey.
At key points, Berkoff’s staging seems unnecessarily shackled to the film original, such as Terry’s famous “coulda been a contender” soliloquy, which Merrells and the excellent Robin Kingsland as Charley play in a simulated taxi, sitting in chairs with an actor playing the driver hunched in front of them and the rest of the company absurdly making vroom-vroom noises.
The production (and, as it happens, “Gone With the Wind”) feels disconnected from the work of contemporary U.K. legit innovators, such as Kneehigh Theater, which have discovered creative cross-genre solutions to the adaptation of screen material to the stage. Berkoff, once an innovator, now comes across as behind the times.