Playwright Chloë Moss grew up watching container ships passing through the windows of her house near the Seaforth docks in Liverpool. Decades later, when she returned to live up the road from her childhood home, she found herself once again mesmerized by these vast, faceless vessels. When she was a child, her mother de ella told her bedtime fairy stories about the men who went to sea, but any lingering sense of romance about the lives of the sailors working on board was comprehensively stamped out during the four years of research she undertook. before writing her new play, Corrina, Corrina.
The confined, claustrophobic environment of a cargo ship offers such a perfect setting for a thriller, it seems remarkable that playwrights have not previously chosen to locate their scripts within these rigidly hierarchical surroundings. Audiences will quickly discover that life on board is streaked with misogyny, racism, exploitation and violence, but these are problems that have very rarely attracted much attention because shipping industry news rarely makes the front page. “It’s such an invisible industry,” Moss says, speaking over Zoom during a break on day three of rehearsals in Liverpool. “It’s kind of blindly ignored, which is very strange considering that something like 90% of everything you own has come in via a ship. There is no capitalism without the shipping industry – it’s huge.”
Her play centers on a young woman, Corrina, who arrives at Felixstowe docks to take up a job as a junior officer on a ship about to embark for Singapore. The only woman on board, she is caught between the British senior staff and rest of the crew, mainly made up of badly paid men from the Philippines, who spend protracted periods away from their families.
“The ship in the play is a microcosm of society,” says Moss. “You’ve got the old white guy in charge, the captain, and then the badly exploited workers at the bottom of the pile.” Corrina is trying to navigate her way through the complex power dynamics, determined to hold her own. She begins quietly self-assured and grows angrier and more powerful as the play progresses, and as the insurmountable nature of the male-dominated structures around her sinks in.
Moss’s research was painstaking. She worked with the charity Kanlungan, which supports Filipino migrant workers, to understand the difficulties they face. She toured a container ship; contacted the maritime trade union Nautilus International; attended female seafarers’ conferences; and interviewed lots of female cadets.
She was particularly started by the amount of abuse women endure during their work. “Women make up around 1% of the shipping industry,” she says, “so, most likely, if you’re a woman on a cargo ship, you’re going to be the only woman on board. I didn’t speak to one female seafarer who hadn’t had been directly affected by sexual harassment or sexual violence. There wasn’t one. You can’t really get a clearer manifestation of patriarchy than on board a cargo ship.”
While she was researching, Moss was very struck by the story of Akhona Geveza, a 19-year-old South African cadet who disappeared while she was working on a cargo ship in 2010. Geveza said she had been raped by a senior crew member, and when this was reported to the captain, he set up a three-way meeting between Geveza and her attacker, as if it was a personnel matter that could be resolved through mediation; she did not turn up for the meeting, and her body was found off the Croatian coast three days later.
“It was just ruled a suicide. It was unbelievable, and one of the root problems is that the captain is God on a ship. So however he decides to deal with it is how it gets dealt with. It’s the law of the captain,” Moss says.
Because ships are usually in international waters, the legal jurisdiction can be uncertain. “You’ve got flags of convenience, where shipowners register a ship to one country, usually one that lacks laws around working conditions and wage protection. And you’ve got a multinational crew who are heading from one side of the world to the other, through international waters where there is no jurisdiction. The big question is: who takes responsibility for any crime that happens? And the answer is usually nobody.”
Corrina’s story is not Geveza’s story, but there are common threads. Moss’s heroine, like the South African cadet, is encouraged to go to sea as part of an equal opportunities campaign, designed to increase the proportion of women working in the industry. When Corrina tries to report abuse, a similar three-way encounter is set up by her captain, a man who thinks he is progressive on matters of equality. It does not go well. “I’m not suggesting for a moment that people shouldn’t be held accountable, but my priority is ensuring that we always move forward,” the captain says, cheerfully initiating an encounter between the attacker and his victim. “The best way to move forwards, I’m sure, working and living in such close proximity, is to discuss it openly in a safe space.”
Moss has previously written plays for the Clean Break theater company, which mostly focuses on prison themes, and her work has taken her frequently into the men’s prison estate, so she understands the feeling of going into an all-male environment. “You go into that space as a woman, you feel something in the air; it’s very palpable.”
Woven into the drama is the Homeric legend of Scylla, a female sea monster with six heads and a tail. In Moss’s account, Scylla has been made into a monster and banished to the bottom of the sea by a controlling suitor. “After a few thousand years of this, she started to get angry, so she swam back up to the surface and went on a rampage, swallowing men on boats like there’s no tomorrow,” Corrina tells her fellow crew members, in explanation of her own rising fury from her.
Moss’s play is, in part, the story of women who are “constantly having their own anger ignored, suppressed or dampened.” She explains: “Corrina begins by trying to assimilate, adopting a kind of masculinity and matching the men, trying to show that she has an armor. Later, it comes full circle as she takes things into her own hands to get justice. It’s really about the character tapping into her own anger from her. ”
The play is beautifully written and occasionally unexpectedly funny, despite the creeping tension. The role of the cargo ship is shown to be as fascinating as it is bizarre – slowly transporting shipments of random objects across the world, everything from containers carrying tens of thousands of plastic talking-and-singing dolls to yoga mats and smuggled guns. The sailors argue about the importance or pointlessness of their work. One sailor is accused of buying “things he doesn’t need with the money he gets from shipping the things nobody else needs all across the world”. “It’s called life, my friend,” he retorts. “Modern life. Life is good.”
There is nothing here to make you want to head to the docks and sign up for this work. “It’s my idea of hell, to be stuck in that situation for weeks on end. You’ve got characters that literally can’t escape each other. One of the big problems for a dramatist is, when your characters are in conflict, how to keep them together, to keep on telling the story. The great thing about a ship is that they can’t go anywhere else.”
Moss did not intend to write a thriller, and for a while she was a bit hesitant about allowing herself to describe her play as one. “It’s like saying you’ve written a comedy,” she says, pointing out that it feels a bit presumptuous to assume that the writing will achieve that effect. But the script has psychological tension, loneliness, power struggles, fear, violence and a constant threat of pirates, and it easily merits the description. “I’ve started describing it as a feminist thriller,” she says with a laugh. “I’m owning it now.”
Corrina, Corrinaa Headlong and Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse co-production, plays the Everyman theatre, Liverpool, 17 May to 4 June.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism