It’s 100 years since Arthur Miller’s birth, and a lot of theatres are staging new productions of his classic plays. But the Everyman, in conjunction with Northampton’s Royal and Derngate Theatre, is doing something commendably different. They’re offering us the premiere of The Hook, an excellent Miller work that’s never been performed anywhere in the world before.
He wrote it in 1950 as a screenplay for a film that would be directed by Elia Kazan. Set in the New York docks, it was inspired by the true story of a young docker who paid a heavy price for challenging the power of the mobsters who controlled his union. But it was the height of anti-communist paranoia in America, and the Hollywood studios, under pressure from the FBI, were nervous about the project. They told Miller to alter the script so that all the gangsters in it were communists. Miller refused and the film was never made. A few years later he returned to the world of New York longshoremen for A View From The Bridge (now one of his best-known plays), while Elia Kazan went on to direct On The Waterfront, the unforgettable Marlon Brando film which explores the same territory, including the links between organised crime and corrupt union bosses.
The Hook (which Ron Hutchison has now adapted for the stage) has echoes of both these classics. When a group of men scrabble for a token that will guarantee one of them work for the day, we’re reminded of a similar powerful scene in Kazan’s film. And Marty Ferrara, The Hook’s central character, is an archetypal Arthur Miller hero: facing terrible moral dilemmas but responding to them with dignity, courage and occasional weakness. He’s driven to fight injustice but knows that if he loses he’ll sacrifice his livelihood and his family will face destitution. The plot hinges on his decision to run for the union presidency, a contest with an outcome that manages to be both predictable and unexpected.
As well as an absorbing storyline (though the second half is perhaps a bit too action-packed), there’s a very atmospheric set (designed by Patrick Connellan), resembling the cavernous hold of a large ship. It’s a dark, murky world (in more ways than one), and we get a strong sense of the hard realities of the men’s working lives. The large cast are all splendid, with very convincing New York accents (in fact so convincing it’s occasionally difficult to catch what they’re saying, especially early on before the ear gets tuned in to the Brooklyn speech rhythms). Jamie Sives is impassioned, anguished and desperate as Marty Ferrara, and Joe Alessi memorably sinister as the brutal but immaculately dressed union president. Also outstanding is Susie Trayling as Marty’s wife Therese, struggling to keep their family afloat.
It is of course very appropriate that this play should be staged in Liverpool, like New York a great port city. Echoes of how life must have been on the Liverpool docks abound. And with the rise of zero hours contracts and workers’ rights seemingly receding rather than advancing, it’s not just the centenary of Arthur Miller’s birth that makes this a suitable time to stage The Hook. It’s a powerful, inspiring piece and we should be grateful it’s finally seen the light of day.
NOTE: During the Liverpool docks dispute of the mid-1990s the strikers received especially strong support from workers in the New York dockyards. That dispute had one positive outcome, when the money generated by ‘Dockers’, the film about the dispute, was used to open the Casa, a bar and community centre a short distance away from the Everyman on Hope Street. The Everyman are using The Hook to support their neighbours: there’s an exhibition of images and memorabilia from the club’s archive during the play’s run, and you can buy Casa t-shirts. The Casa does a lot of good work and has had its difficulties lately, so it’s a good time to support them!