Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie @ The Donmar Warehouse, London, 26 August 2011
It was quite a coup to score tickets for a play at the Donmar (with only 250 seats, it’s pretty much a members only club + those like me who’re willing to fight for tix on e-bay), even more so since this is Michael Grandage's last season as the Donmar's Artistic Director. Grandage took over from Sam Mendes in 2002 and has had an even more successful run than his predecessor — something than no-one would have thought possible. Anna Christie was a random pick on my part but as I saw it anything would do.
Anna Christie is a play in four acts by Eugene O’Neill. It made its Broadway debut at in 1921 and O’Neill received the 1922 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his work. it tells the story of a former prostitute who returns to the father who sent her away when she was a child, falls in love with a sailor and tries with great difficulty to turn her life around. [Greta Garbo played the title role on screen in 1930, Natasha Richardson on stage in 1993.]
Well, I’m no theatre-goer, but I don’t think theatre experience gets any better than this. The play was not only superbly acted, but the space was lovely and felt exceptionally intimate, and the stage production was mind blowing: the atmospheric lighting, the flawless sound, the fantastic set changes (full of ingenuity and creativity) + the theatre is so small you’re truly up close and personal with the actors (I was luckily at a safe distance from all the thespian spitting that was going on — I remember once spending a whole play dodging Ralph Fiennes’s spit and found the experience to be rather exhausting).
Rob Ashford’s staging brings alive both a rough sailors’ bar and life aboard the barge, with an evocative planked design by Paul Wills and a stage that tilts to represent the boat at sea. The shipwreck rescue is thrillingly staged and there are haunting sea shanties and great swirls of fog in the night.
The incredible staging of the shipwreck rescue gave Jude Law the most grandiose entrance of his career, I bet. And I was impressed by how buff and rough he’s made himself look for the part. He’s successfully managed to shelve his pretty-boy and delicate looks to be able to play boorish Irish sailor Mat Burke.
Cast against type, Law conveys the muscular innocence of a man who has a rolling nautical gait, looks deeply uncomfortable in a suit and acts purely on instinct: when happy, Law essays a jaunty Irish jig and, when enraged, pummels pillows and hurls chairs at walls with primitive abandon. I suspect it’s a breakthrough performance in that it releases Law from the tyranny of always being seen as the good-looking lead man and allows him to become a character actor.
But although Law’s the big draw of the play, Ruth Wilson totally holds her own in the lead role. She was news to me (and a revelation) but as it turns out, she’s done a couple of things on TV (Jane Eyre among other things) and had already played at the Donmar before, as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire (she won an Oliver Award for it).
Wilson is magnificent in every department as Anna. She manages to combine a caustic, world-weary cynicism and a vulnerability to new experience, an unatrophied poetry of the soul and hard-bitten urban vernacular (her accent is often like a foretaste of Guys and Dolls). With a modernity born of suffering, she makes the two insensitively sparring men look like moral dinosaurs, especially in the extraordinary scene where their reproving passivity goads her into an infuriated declaration of the truth and a blazing exposure of the double standards by which these brothel-frequenting males live.
'We're all poor nuts, and things happen, and we just get mixed in wrong'
[Random note: Dinner + Donmar in one week; you can’t do posher than that]