Just a few days ago I was sitting in the Liverpool Small Cinema watching a film called Still the Enemy Within. Elegiac and accusatory, it’s the story of the 1984-85 miners’ strike from the perspective of the striking miners themselves. As it retold the dispute’s early skirmishes its tone was infectiously upbeat but, as the forces of conservatism closed in – crucially, from within the union movement as well as from without – the tale seemed to drive a dagger into the heart. The anguish of optimism overturned was plain to see, while the pain of men and women betrayed was hard to watch.
A few nights later I was in the Everyman Theatre to see the new stage version of Arthur Miller’s ‘lost’ screenplay, The Hook. Set in the post-war New York longshore community of Red Hook, it tells the story of working men driven to desperate action because, unlike the British NUM in the mid-80s, their union refused to defend their interests. It wasn’t just that the International Longshoremen’s Association of the period didn’t have the stomach for a fight against commercial interests; in the play, just as in real life, it was also at the mercy of the mafia.
Faced with forces too powerful to be tackled alone, some of the play’s dock workers are driven to silent despair while others give in to the temptations offered by their criminal ‘benefactors’. Dock work may have been sporadic due to the casual labour system, and frequently deadly – it’s the death of the widely-respected Barney that triggers the play’s real action – but the union’s outlaw interests were vested in not rocking the boat.
In Red Hook at the end of the 1930s, a rank and file protest movement emerged against this corruption; it was led by Pete Panto, a man who subsequently ‘disappeared’. His loose words are echoed in the play by another contrary voice – that of Marty Ferrara. Played with a shrug and a sneer by Jamie Sives, Marty is the articulate longshoreman for whom Barney’s sudden demise beneath a gravitationally-challenged sack of coffee beans is the last straw. On a stage that teems with life, where girders swing dangerously and trapdoors gape wide, Marty sets out on a righteous moral journey that must surely lead to an Omen-style final conflict with the local union president, Louis.
Played with chilling intensity by Joe Alessi, Louis is the performance of the night. When this man draws on his cigar and spits words across the stage like venom, we understand that the combination of power and patronage can corrupt any organisation, even one that’s supposed to stand by its members and ensure that their voice is heard.
There’s no doubt that The Hook is both a fascinating piece of work and a spectacular night in the theatre. The huge cast and swirling ensemble choreography are impressive, even if they sometimes threaten to overwhelm the Everyman stage.
Isobel Waller-Bridge’s portentous score and Tom Mills’s bombastic sound design underscore the drama and leave us in no doubt that these are the defining moments of Marty’s life. In what could be described as the deconstruction of a pre-revolutionary moment – though given this is post-war America, we know that revolution came there none – we see how moral power can potentially knock the future off its apparent course.
The story of how Arthur Miller’s original screenplay came to be written, suppressed and forgotten has been told elsewhere on Northern Soul, but suffice to say, anyone who loves Miller’s work must see this show. That said, Ron Hutchinson’s stage adaptation retains the feel of a screenplay, with numerous short scenes that jump cut from dockside to apartment to meeting hall to the street. While this means the play is true to its progenitor, it doesn’t have the tragic intensity of Miller’s greatest stage plays – though I dare say it was never expected that it would. Its pleasures are more audio visual than purely dramatic, and while that’s enough to raise the heart rate, it doesn’t quite succeed in fully engaging the soul.
To be clear, I enjoyed The Hook a lot, but feel that it’s a work to be admired as an exciting theatrical event rather than cherished for its contribution to the Miller canon. As an adapted film script, it was never going to be an undiscovered Death of a Salesman, but the Liverpool dock workers’ banners that line the theatre bar are testament to the fact that this show has something to contribute to the labour movement tradition of this city. Though director James Dacre developed the play at his home base of Northampton’s Royal & Derngate, it’s in the context of Liverpool that The Hook will surely make waves.
The night I saw it, the audience was busy with ex-dockers. For them, the on-stage representation of that daily battle for casual work must have felt like far more than a historical curiosity, and when Marty calls for the strike action that so angers his union officials, maybe there were memories of dockyard votes gone by.
All this brings me back to Still the Enemy Within and that momentous one-year miners’ struggle. It had pickets, police and famous pitched battles, but it wasn’t even half as long as the Liverpool dockers’ dispute of 1995-98. This city is full of men who once carried the dockers’ hook but who never will again.
Ah yes, that hook. It’s ever-present in the play, used to catch hold of sacks as they swing from gantries, but also used as a threatening weapon during some of the most violent scenes. As the writer Ron Hutchinson told me a few weeks ago, “That hook of the title is very well chosen. Everybody’s on the hook. There’s the dockers’ hook that generations of Liverpool dockers carried, and there’s the big hook that’s through everybody’s nose – which is the guys above them.”
From ubiquitous tool to museum piece to literary metaphor, that crescent of metal has been on a considerable journey – but then, doesn’t that mirror the journey of the script itself? It was once a dust-covered relic and now it hangs heavy with meaning, catching hold of our emotions as we watch its tale unfold.
While The Hook might not be truly classic Miller, it still snags at the memory and remains buried somewhere under the skin. It tells of a specific period in New York’s dockside history but, beyond that, it’s a lesson in unity and moral clarity to which we would all do well to hang on.
Photos by Manuel Harlan
What: The Hook
Where: Everyman Theatre, Liverpool
When: until July 25, 2015