Archive | June, 2015

Theatre Interlude: The Hook

6 Jun

hook

The idea of a provincial British theatre staging the world premiere of a work by one of America’s greatest 20th century playwrights is remarkable yet last night I watched the first public performance of The Hook, a drama derived from an unmade screenplay by the great Arthur Miller.  Premiered in Northampton’s Royal and Derngate theatre, the story behind the production is worth recounting.

In 1951, Miller was in Hollywood, in discussion with Columbia Studios about filming The Hook, his 1947 screenplay about a young dockworker standing up to exploitation by both shipowners and by his own corrupt trade union.  The work’s title refers both to the dockers’ tool of a bailing hook but also acknowledges the Red Hook township on New York’s Hudson river neighbourhood where Miller had grown up and witnessed, first-hand, the 1930’s battles of dockworkers against racketeering and bribery within the International Longshoremen’s Association.

The early fifties were also the time when Senator Joe McCarthy was leading a rightwing ‘Red Scare’ against perceived “un-American activities”  and Hollywood was blacklisting people suspected of having radical sympathies or associates.This led to Miller being put under pressure to amend his story to include some communist characters to be portrayed in a negative light and the leader of Hollywood unions to threaten a projectionist boycott if the film was made without such changes.

Miller refused to bow to political censorship and withdrew his script but his proposed Director, Elia Kazan, proved more persuadable and went on to  give evidence to Congress, identifying others as communists. Kazan also went on to direct Marlon Brando in 1954’s On The Waterfront, a film which also dealt with violence and corruption among longshoremen but this time with a script by Budd Schulberg who, like Kazan, had volunteered names of communist associates to the House Un-American Activities Committee witch-hunt. It would be wrong to see The Hook simply as a footnote to the multi-Oscar winning On the Waterfront – it deserves to be understood as part of the canon of Miller’s work. It is certainly not fanciful to suggest that Miller’s experience of McCarthyism in 1951 shaped and influenced The Crucible,  his 1953 dramatisation of the Salem witch trials as an allegory for contemporary moral panics.

With back-story which reads like a drama itself, adapting The Hook for the theatre cannot have been easy for Emmy Award-winning writer Ron Hutchinson. Using only Miller’s own language and narrative structure, he collated the piece from various different typescripts and  handwritten notes held in academic collections in a way that is impressive. It remains faithful to Miller’s own trademark blend of social and moral drama which addresses ‘big issues’ from very human individual perspectives. In this case, the protagonist is Marty Ferrara (played by Jamie Sives), an impulsive, charismatic yet unsophisticated Italian-American dock worker who challenges the officers of his union local. This character was based, loosely, upon the real-life figure Peter Panto – a Brooklyn longshoreman activist murdered in 1939 by mobsters for leading dissent against the union leadership.

It’s probably unfair to pass too firm a judgement of a production on the basis of its first preview night but there were one or two rough edges and cues left hanging fractionally too long. That said, The Hook is a remarkably successful work. The single stage set (designed by Patrick Connellan) serves variously as wharf, street and union hall with a balcony used to show an apartment and office worked very well indeed and the lighting (by Charles Balfour) was suitably atmospheric although, perhaps occasionally, too shadowy for the audience.

The whole piece was directed by James Dacre who, as Artistic Director of Royal and Derngate, is making Northampton an increasingly recognised venue for new drama. 

Others in the strong cast who stood out for me were Sean Murray, Joe Allessi and Paul Rattray. Also, making the best of the only female role as Marty’s wife Therese (which Miller left somewhat under-developed) was Susie Trayling. All of the actors managed to pull off New York accents.

The play is richly rewarding – prompting audiences to reflect, in the words of the programme upon “disparate loyalties, mixed motives, codes of honour and allegiance”.

The play runs in Northampton until June 27th before transferring to Liverpool. I imagine that it may well transfer to the West End.