Wednesday, 8 July 2015

The Hook @ Liverpool Everyman

I had a brilliant early evening out tonight, watching a 'twilight' performance at the Everyman of Arthur Miller's The Hook, a play that has been largely suppressed for 60 years, only now getting its world premiere. 

The Hook is set in the Red Hook district of Brooklyn's busy port and tells the tale of Marty Ferrara (brought vividly to life by Scottish actor Jamie Sives) a deeply moral man amidst the very real rats of the waterfront. Tired of seeing the corruption rife within the union and the risk to life and limb a day's work exacts upon his fellow longshoremen, Marty takes a heroic stand and runs against the union president and mobster Louis (brilliantly played by Joseph Alessi) 

Miller was inspired to write The Hook after hearing, as a young man working nights in those very same navy yards, the story of longshoreman Pete Panto who attempted to challenge the corruption in the same way that Ferrara does, only to be kidnapped and murdered by the mob. Miller wrote his fiction as a 'play for the screen' rather than a piece for the stage, determined to get his message across in the widest terms possible. However this was the 1950s and a time when America was gripped by McCarthy's witch hunts, extreme paranoia and red-bating. When faced with the screenplay delivered by Miller and director Elia Kazan, Columbia Pictures baulked at the perceived Communist message but Miller refused to rewrite or soft soap his work even when the FBI intervened, fearing social unrest in the very docks Miller had written about should The Hook get made. The feds pretty much outlawed it, and Miller and Kazan had no option but to withdraw their script from Colombia. Soon after Kazan made On The Waterfront, a similar tale of corruption on the docks, and would testify before McCarthy, identifying Communists in his social circle. Miller on the other hand, remained steadfast and refused to name anyone. He was convicted of contempt of Congress, but this was later overturned and his courage to take a stand proved to be not too dissimilar to that of the hero he created in The Hook, who he described as 'a genuinely moral man...pressing towards everything that is established and accepted'. We have to thank director James Dacre and writer Ron Hutchinson to finally get The Hook on stage after an extensive six years research of several versions of Miller's script and notes, producing a screen play of which 'every word of the play is Miller's', a deeply fitting tribute and a production as vital and important now as it was when first suppressed in the 1950s. It may not be as Miller dreamed, ie for the screen, but The Hook finds it natural home on the stage; the arena for debate, and in Liverpool - with its rich dockworker history - particularly.

Their adaptation is definitely in keeping with Miller's vision of a play for the screen, bearing all the hallmarks of the pacy, punchy, naturalistic dramas that dominated the cinema at the time and have subsequently, rightfully, gone down in history as classics. There really is no let up across the near two hour running time and the audience is treated to a blistering, intense and deeply authentic piece that really makes you think.

The Everyman is a fabulous theatre which places you mere inches from the performers and often literally in the thick of the action. Patrick Connellan's set is a thing of beauty, a design so realistic and deeply evocative that you can practically smell the salty sea air. It doesn't take much imagination to get a sense of the bustling and busy waterfront, helped immeasurably by the actors and the theatre's community ensemble tramping across the stage and in and around the audience.

At its heart The Hook is still a contemporary drama with as much to say about 2015's United Kingdom as it has to say about 1950s Brooklyn. The scenes of longshoremen shuffling onto the waterfront in the cold, foggy, morning air at gang call hoping for a day's work and often having to bribe their way into work with a bottle of wine for their union delegate, isn't so different than the poor souls who have to endure zero hour contracts today, turning up for work never knowing if they're going to be needed or not. Equally the sense of having to settle for small victories, of democracy not always working for you; with people's dreamy eyed idealism quickly sobering up in the cold light of pessimistic hard experience and of a fear taking hold of you to ensure you don't use your voice for what you really want, has some parallels in the recent election results. 

It's especially fitting that this beautiful and thought provoking production has played in Liverpool and pledged a strong allegiance with the city's own extensive dockyard history, with a powerful display of images and materials relating to the Merseyside dockers TU movement and of the pivotal 1995-'98 strike from the archives of the Casa, the help and advice and social hub created as a direct result of that strike which is currently struggling due to a lack of funding. T-shirts on sale and buckets for donations for the advocacy and bar service were out in the foyer, and well... I couldn't walk by. I'm now the proud owner of a Casa 'Get Hooked' T-Shirt.  

I was blown away by The Hook with its unrelenting pace, its honesty and its integrity and its depiction of the courage required in standing up for what you believe in, at a time of austerity and corruption.   

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