The Hook (Royal & Derngate)

To mark the centenary of Miller’s birth, Royal & Derngate and Liverpool Everyman co-produce the world premiere of Miller’s ‘play for the screen’

Ewart James Walters as Darkeyes in The Hook
Ewart James Walters as Darkeyes in The Hook

A world premiere of a new Arthur Miller play: how can this be? And would James Dacre's Northampton production, which is shared with the Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse, be a fitting companion piece to the RSC's Death of a Salesman in Miller's centenary year?

The background story of The Hook, an unfinished, unproduced screenplay, is actually more interesting than the play itself, which has been stuck together from various manuscripts by Ron Hutchinson.

Basking in the Broadway success of Salesman in 1949, Miller and his director, Elia Kazan, high-tailed it to Hollywood to dangle before the studios a story of a courageous longshoreman, Marty Ferrara, standing up to the bosses and corruption on the waterfront. While Miller was busy falling in love with Marilyn Monroe, the ghastly Columbia mogul Harry Cohn, in hock with the FBI, insisted that the union crooks and their gangster protectors in the script should be Communists.

Miller refused and turned instead to a stage adaptation of Ibsen's parable of the man who stands alone, An Enemy of the People. Kazan testified against "red" colleagues in Senator McCarthy's Commie witch hunt and directed Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront.

The Hook is like an emaciated version of that movie, and Dacre gives it a nod with some cooing pigeons over the dockside. Otherwise, the piece is curiously devoid of poetry or inflamed rhetoric of any kind, although Jamie Sives — last seen as King James III in Rona Munro's great trilogy — makes of Marty a tortured martyr to his own integrity.

Brooklyn's Red Hook community of underpaid workers, anxious households — Susie Trayling is notably fierce and affecting as Marty's wife — and dangerous conditions is admirably conveyed in Dacre's staging on a clever design by Patrick Connellan of sloping bare boards, stairways and a long diagonal loading pulley system beneath a glass ceiling.

As in On the Waterfront, the death of a colleague under a falling coffee bale is the spur to action. With his curved steel loading utensil, Marty becomes the red hook of Red Hook, embroiled in union battles but dangerously sucked into an illegal betting sideline by the incantatory blind Darkeyes of Ewart James Walters.

Whatever small victory comes Marty's way is more spiritual than reforming. His enemies are not only indifference and deep-seated malpractice on his own side but the overwhelming, officially endorsed corruption on the other, as represented by Joe Alessi's cigar-chomping boss Louis. The vote-rigging scene is more brazen than in any African or Middle Eastern fiefdom today: and this is the free world.

No wonder the studio bosses and the FBI wanted the movie dropped. Miller would have to write it in a different way — in the Ibsen adaptation, and in The Crucible — while another kind of longshoreman altogether, Eddie Carbone in A View from the Bridge, would catch the echo of one union leader here who demands he is given back his good name.

The Hook runs at the Royal & Derngate until 27 June and at the Liverpool Everyman from 1 – 25 July.