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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Anna Christie
Donmar Theatre Summer 2011

Actress Ruth Wilson previously worked at the Donmar with director Rob Ashford two years ago when she won an Olivier award for her Streetcar supporting role as a sultry Stella. She now she portrays O’Neill’s Anna with astonishing insight, a superbly centred performance that should help make her a West End star.

The play’s narrative thread is a tricky mixture of dockside melodramas, complete with a cackling baglady, the central focus being on the sea-borne tragic trio of a jealous father, a macho lover and a girl who had turned to prostitution to survive.

Paul Wills’ atmospheric design, lit by Howard Harrison, deploys hydraulic hoists to convert the setting swiftly from a seamans’ waterfront saloon, where father and daughter have just met again after 15 years, to the deck of the rusty scow, ‘like a piece of floating land with a house on top’.

David Hayman is the father, an old Swedish sea salt who once sailed the Seven Seas, but now plies a coal barge between New York and Boston. A gritty man of integrity, he finds it easy to blame ‘that old devil sea’ for every ill. 

But he abandoned his five-year-old daughter Anna for a bosun’s life and now, just as they’ve become reunited, the sea washes up a shipwrecked Irish stoker as a rival for her affections.

At sea and in dense fog and drenching rain, Jude Law’s impressively muscular Mat, rippling torso bared, is hauled on board and saved from drowning, not just a sweet-talking Irishman but an epic, masculine figure in search of ‘a chaste woman’, who promptly falls in love with Anna.

Thrillingly staged and highly enjoyable though all this is, Law’s blarney-talking performance sometimes suggests a stage Irishman (plus pecs); an impression reinforced in the second act by his slick reappearance in a nifty lover’s suit and titfer, now in hot but romantic pursuit of Anna, who herself becomes smitten in return.

But Anna is her own woman, quietly determined to tell her father and lover that because of her shameful early life she cannot marry a decent man, while explaining that she took refuge from child abuse in the relative safety of a brothel.

Both men recoil in horror and anger but in these powerfully developing and emotional scenes Ms Wilson, a slender gentle figure, brings quiet strength of character to her performance, coupled at times with moments of welcome wit and a sweet sense of realism minus any resort to histrionics. 

And although the final moments of O’Neill’s version bring an awkward kiss and the hint of a happy ending, here the outcome is resolved with a bold, more coherent and wholly dramatic dignity.

John Thaxter

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Review - Anna Christie - Donmar 2011  

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