Sunday, March 21, 2010

REVIEW: On The Waterfront, a production of Nottingham Playhouse + Richard Wakely

It was a dazzling production that showed the strength of the 12-men ensemble. This production by the Nottingham Playhouse and Richard Wakely; and directed by Steven Berkoff is part of the 38th Hong Kong Arts Festival. The performance on the 20th of March that I saw was the last performance.
I have never seen the famous movie of the same title starring Marlon Brando. My awareness of the title "On The Waterfront" came from an encounter with the soundtrack of the broadway production of the play composed by David Amram. It is only later that I found out the illustrious pedigree of the piece. On The Waterfront was based on a series of articles in the New York Sun by Malcolm Johnson called "Crime on the Watefront". In fact, the series won the Pulitzer Prize in 1949 for Local Reporting. It was later made into the famous movie with Leonard Bernstein providing the score, his only original film score not adapted from a stage production.

This dockside theatre piece was infused with stylized acting that resonated Brecht and German expressionism. Actors moved in slow motion in between scenes with facial contortions that almost stepped into caricature. The strength of the production relied on the effectiveness of the minimalist approach it tok. The 12-strong ensemble gave a very dynamic dramatic portrayal of life on the waterfront. They morphed from Mafia-like union bosses to exploited workers with great skill and ease that made it feel like there were more than 12 actors on stage.

One of the most amusing transitions in the play took place on the rooftop. There, actors perched on the chairs cooed, fluttered and pecked like pet pigeons, then suddenly dispersed into boozers in a sleazy bar.

If I am forced to highlight any actors, Steven Berkoff epitomizes evil gangster. I knew he directed the play, but I didn't realize that he was actually in it until I tried to look for the name of the actor playing Johnny Friendly. Simon Merrells as Terry Malloy gave an energetic and forceful performance that effectively portrayed the conflicted loyalties owed to different parties. Vincenzo Nicoli as Father Barry and Robin Kingsland as Charlie Malloy gave very strong support.

This review will not be complete without mentioning the lighting design of Mike Robertson. It was one of the best design I have seen for a long time in Hong Kong. He was able to show how a good design can actually create a virtual set and steer the audiences attention to what is important on the stage. The design was cinematic in fluidity and focus.

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