On the Waterfront - Steven Berkoff

This article is from 2008.

On the Waterfront

Fighting talk

Veteran theatrical maverick Steven Berkoff talks to Steve Cramer about the theatre, its prejudices and his working class roots

Steven Berkoff’s position in the British theatre is a bit like that of the mysterious nail that seems to belong nowhere after you’ve constructed your Ikea bookshelf. On the face of it, he simply doesn’t belong, but somehow things don’t work without him.

His relentless desire to kick against the pricks is undiminished. He turns 71 this year, and even his harshest detractors could not fault the energy with which he sets about his work.

The centre of endless controversies, from his successful libel action against the columnist Julie Burchill for attacking his physical appearance, to his spat with Equity for alleged strikebreaking on commercial voiceovers, Berkoff has never been far from the limelight. His film career has involved a succession of English villains in action films, from Beverly Hills Cop to James Bond and Rambo pictures. But his first passion is the theatre, which he has never abandoned.

This year, Berkoff brings his production of Budd Schulberg’s On The Waterfront to the Fringe. His explanation of how he came to this theatre version contains a characteristic ‘one in the eye’ for the English National Theatre. ‘Waterfront fortunately came up at the National – it was sat on a desk and nobody wanted to do it. I thought, well good for them, I’ll do it, and they’ve missed the opportunity. They couldn’t think of a way to do it, so they did other things that were less challenging. I loved the challenge.’

But given the popularity of Elia Kazan’s film, considered by many critics to be among the best movies ever made, will audiences bring too much expectation to this production? ‘Well, it’s a homage in a way,’ Berkoff comments. ‘But it’s the theatre version, so this means that there are some things about the production which we don’t do in exactly the same way as the film. The famous speech, “I could have been a contender . . .” is delivered, not in a taxi, but in an alleyway, as that’s the way it works on stage.’

What we can certainly expect, beyond this, is Berkoff’s trademark anti-naturalism, which will no doubt cause some reassessment of a naturalistic text. Berkoff, though, is, as ever, unapologetic about his style. ‘My desire is to innovate, be radical, to try to move, astonish and excite the audience,’ he says. He speaks of standard repertory stock, of the safe bets put on by many British theatres dismissively. ‘You have to make the audience wake up – they don’t necessarily want to see their 100th version of The Cherry Orchard.’

He reflects upon his career as one that owes much to his training as a physical theatre practitioner, but perhaps equally, to his working class origins, which, he maintains, give him a different perspective to those around him in a predominantly middle class profession. ‘Coming from a working class background helped me to define things as coming in groups. There were things like the boys’ club, the local pool, the park where all the guys used to hang out with the girls – it’s an ensemble. As you go up the classes you lose that community mentality, people live in semi-detached houses with just a few friends. I’ve never lost the sense of the group being important; that’s always been part of the work I do, the ensemble, interacting, creating together.’

He continues: ‘What you see in middle class productions is the typical leading actor at the centre of the stage, and the other actors hovering along the edges like black slaves in servitude, occasionally doing some perfunctory movement. For me all the actors must be part of it.’

A working class boy, then, tells a working class story.

On the Waterfront, Pleasance Courtyard, 556 6550, 2–24 Aug (not 5, 12, 19), 2pm, £10–£15. Previews 31 Jul & 1 Aug, £7.

Steven Berkoff

In town to direct 'On the Waterfront', this iconic theatre figure shakes up the calm of Charlotte Square to discuss 'A Life in Food', his hearty tome from last year. 'Part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival'.

On The Waterfront

  • 4 stars

A triumphant homage to the screen classic, infused with director Steven Berkoff's trademark anti-naturalistic style. 'Part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe'.


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