With its sometimes creaky plotting and quaint attempts at rendering “ethnic” dialect (we hear way too much about “Dat ole davil, da sea”), it’s fair to say that Anna Christie (1920) isn’t the Eugene O’Neill play that’s aged the best. But Rob Ashford’s accomplished, atmospheric new production, which opened last week at the Donmar Warehouse, manages to transcend most of the play’s shortcomings, and achieves moments of genuine beauty and poetic intensity. O’Neill’s tale of a young prostitute’s reunion with the sea-captain father who abandoned her to a life of drudgery (and worse) with family members on a farm is most notable for its sympathetic characterisation of its female protagonist. While the other characters are broadly drawn to the point of caricature, O’Neill constructs Anna in more than one-dimension. Tough yet vulnerable, perceptive and intelligent, variously bitter and resigned, she’s a great American heroine.
And while physically not quite the “handsome, large, Viking-daughter” of O’Neill’s specification, Ruth Wilson comes through with a stunning performance here, creating a riveting portrait of a woman bruised by her experiences and seeking rest and redemption. The pivotal scene in which she reveals the truth of her past to the two men who both seek to control her is this production’s deeply affecting highlight.
The male roles are less distinguished but both actors deliver committed performances. Laying heavily into an Oirish brogue but moderating the excessive gesticulating that very slightly marred his Hamlet for me, a toned Jude Law brings great physicality and some witty touches to his role as Burke, the stoker who falls for Anna; his first scene seems destined to become a classic, on several counts. And as Anna’s father, David Hayman starts out rather over-effusively but finds a few touching grace notes in the role as the evening progresses.
The production design is also noteworthy: Paul Wills contributes a wonderful set (the Act 1 to Act 2 transition from saloon bar to barge’s stern is thrilling) and an understated, shanty-influenced score from Adam Cork also adds to the atmosphere. O’Neill’s play is stuck with some dated and problematic aspects but this is a fine, eloquent staging that frequently touches the soul.
The production runs for 2 hours 30 minutes and is booking until 8th October. Further information here. Warning: contains STRONG accents.