Review Round-up: Donmar Anna Christie Wows CriticsDate: 10 August 2011
Rob Ashford's production of Anna Christie opened last night (9 Aug 2011, Previews from 4 August) at the Donmar Warehouse. The star-studded revival features award-winning actress Ruth Wilson in the title role, and Hollywood favourite Jude Law as Mat, her emotionally violent lover.
Eugene O'Neill's 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning play tells the story of former prostitute Anna, who was exiled from her home as a child, and is reunited with her father, played by David Hayman, after a 15 year absence.
"Law is superb as the manic, histrionic Mat Burke … Ruth Wilson gives a less showy but more subtle performance in the title role … David Hayman is also impressive as her wiry, superstitious father, combining physical bravery, moral cowardice and childlike innocence … Designer Paul Wills makes an apparently simple stage transform at the tilt of a rake into a ship's deck in a ferociously stormy sea … There is further fiendish cleverness when we descend thanks to the the simple positioning of a ladder into the bowels of the vessel, whose ironwork has been there unseen all along. The production wears its voice-coaching on its oilskin sleeve. O'Neill has a rich sense of the musicality of the immigrant accent … A less welcome quirk is to put the interval between the third and final acts. This makes sense dramatically but two hours is a long first half with no break. It's as if this shortish work by O'Neill's usual standards is determined to inflict his normal butt-ache torture on the audience ... In writing Anna with such complete sympathy, the playwright was undoubtedly way ahead of his time. But with the best will in the world, this work struggles to resonate in our own."
"The Donmar does this sometimes creaky play proud, with an atmospheric production by Rob Ashford and a trio of superb central performances from Jude Law, Ruth Wilson… and David Hayman … 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 … But it is the central roles that transfix attention … Ruth Wilson brings both toughness and vulnerability to the role of the weary prostitute given a tantalising glimpse of a better life … Though his Irish speech patterns often sound like a wicked parody of J M Synge and he looks just like the bearded old salt on packets of Player’s Navy Cut, Jude Law discovers humour, tenderness and sudden moments of intense physical and emotional violence in the role of the Irish stoker. David Hayman is superb, too … Flawed it may be, but there is a raw vigour and humanity in Anna Christie that few other dramatists can match."
"Jude Law is the big draw in this outstanding revival of Eugene O'Neill's 1921 play. But Law's is only one in a triptych of fine performances, the others coming from Ruth Wilson and David Hayman … Ashford swathes the play in nautical realism. The acting matches the production's visual power. Ruth Wilson… not only vividly embodies O'Neill's description of Anna as 'a tall, blond, Viking-daughter', she also has the haunted look of a woman traumatised by her past … Law, in the best performance I've seen him give, is also excellent as her brawny lover. 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 … 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. David Hayman makes the potentially tiresome Chris into a wiry, weatherbeaten figure who articulates O'Neill's doom-laden vision of the sea's impenetrable mystery. And that is the real key to this superb production: it strips the play of its melodramatic externals and, through precise evocation of mood, discovers in it a work about the awesome and overpowering force of nature."
"Rob Ashford's pitch-perfect revival of Anna Christie… is a piece that, in this beautifully acted version, retains an undimmed capacity to shock because of the emotional daring of the twist it gives to the tear-stained convention of the reformed tart with a heart … A scrawny mass of defensive guilt and pathetically belated pride in David Hayman's splendid performance, her feckless, thick-accent father is blind to the signs of her past as a prostitute … Sporting a newly muscle-bound torso, Law vibrantly animates the tension between this character's playfully self-amused exploitation of the cocky-stud stereotype and his violently bigoted sanctimony. 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 … As for the 'happy' ending, Ashford's excellent production makes it feel at once hollow and hauntingly ambiguous … As Wilson climbs to the top deck and gazes out over the waves, almost forgetful of them, there's a strong mystical sense that the trio will be lucky ever to be reunited and that it's the deep destiny of this ex-hooker to be wedded not to a man, but to the renewing and bereaving sea."
"The great stage creaks up into a slanted deck… creaks and cries send men scuttling to run ropes along the aisles and haul shipwrecked sailors to roll and splutter down the slope. Last one up is Jude Law: ragged, soaked, magnificently half-stripped, uttering Irish curses. It's quite an entrance … Law is landed with the most preposterous stage Irishisms heard for decades ('I'll be forgetting it was ever born you were at all' etc) … Wilson's Anna is a terrific creation. A cynical, wounded, painted barfly, she is softened into wonder by the sea she has never seen before, and reaches a magnificent dignity as her secret unravels. But an equal marvel is David Hayman as the old man, eyes bright beneath his battered cap, boozy and sincere and innocent and guilty, evoking flawed age with a Lear-like intensity. On the old principle that commercial plays end with a reassuring lie, I wondered how O'Neill could resolve it: in his day he was criticised for his solution. Today it rings true, and satisfied me entirely."
"Ruth Wilson is raw and luminous in the title role, and there is striking work from David Hayman, while Jude Law, looking far removed from the almost androgynous matinee idol of old, exudes a visceral toughness that may just shape an entirely new career path for him … It's Anna who is the play's great creation. In the 1930 film version the role belonged to Greta Garbo … Wilson here sounds a bit like Garbo and manifests the full Viking ferocity that O'Neill specified … Wilson perfectly conveys her mixture of fury and desperation. We sense the ache within her soul. The play itself isn't a masterpiece. O'Neill's language is overburdened with quirky poetry. It takes some getting used to. So do the leads' bizarre accents: Law's is the most convincing, Wilson's the most beguiling, and Hayman's the most obstructively weird (though it is well done). Yet there's real weight and bite in their interactions, and Rob Ashford's deft production, with a clever design by Paul Wills, evokes the realities of nautical life. It's likely to haunt those who see it for a long time."
- Caitlin Robertson