Monday, August 29, 2011

My other belated theatre blog is for the latest production at the Donmar, Eugene O'Neill's 1921 play of redemption and a life on the ocean wave, ANNA CHRISTIE.
It's strange that it has taken this long for the play to appear at the Donmar as it seems a shoe-in for any smallish theatre needing a solid well-made prestige play - it also only has four major roles! It has not been seen in the West End since Natasha Richardson's award-winning performance nineteen years ago at the Young Vic - when she repeated the role the next year in NY opposite Liam Neeson it led to their marriage and her re-locating to live there.
The piece is most well-known for providing the vehicle for Greta Garbo's debut in talking pictures in 1930. Two years elapsed between the release of Al Jolson's THE JAZZ SINGER and the release of ANNA CHRISTIE and during that time Garbo had starred in 6 silent films as M-G-M searched for just the right film to launch their Swedish star onto the now listening public. But Anna's Swedish background gave Garbo the the perfect role and she went on to garner her first Academy Award nomination for her performance. Her opening lines, "Gimme a whisky, ginger ale on the side... and don't be stingy baby" have entered film history. But what of the Donmar production? The production is directed by Rob Ashford who was responsible for the theatre's 2009 revival of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and both productions share the same downbeat spit-and-sawdust atmosphere - how different to his HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING which we saw earlier this year in New York!

O'Neill's play tells the story of Anna, a young woman who comes east to the docks of New York to find the father who entrusted her to relatives on a farm after the death of her mother while he worked on his coal barge. Old Chris is nervously excited about seeing her after so long, only knowing from her infrequent letters that she worked as a nursemaid in Minnesota. His drink-sozzled mistress Marthy knows better when she spots Anna enter the dockside bar and their wary, cagey conversation reveals that Anna was working in a brothel until arrested and sent to jail. All options shot, she now wants her father to support her. During a storm at sea, Chris and Anna rescue sailors from a shipwreck and the last one saved is Mat Burke, a belligerent Irish stoker whose rollicking Blarney steamrollers Anna into a love affair. When Mat and Chris battle for the right to 'own' Anna, she angrily denounces them both and the long line of men who have used and abused her. Confronted with the truth of Anna's past how forgiving will her father and lover be?

O'Neill certainly powers his plot along in only four scenes and, despite the clunky repetition of Old Chris' simile of "that old devil sea", his rangy and muscular dialogue still keeps you rolling with the punches. He certainly created one of the great female roles of the last century in Anna and it's a shame we have not seen more actresses have the opportunity to play her.
Ruth Wilson played her with Anna's raw nerves fully exposed: from her first appearance staring down the hungry looks of the bar-room men to her last, alone again but stronger than before, she delivered a powerful performance which would have been a great performance if she had found more space for Anna's humanity.

The performance of the evening however was from Jude Law as Mat. Proving to be as much of a force of nature as the storm in which he makes his first appearance, this was the best I have ever seen him on stage. Even if his brogue was tempest tossed from Kerry in Ireland to Kingston in Jamaica, Law gave such a bravura performance that you could not take your eyes off him. For once he gave a performance which justified his star status.
David Hayman wrestled with the potentially deadly role of the salty Sveedish sea dog and eventually managed to overcome the hurdy-gurdy accent and repetitive dialogue to give a well-rounded performance.

Jenny Galloway proved that when it comes to scene-stealing she's the best around. However she really needs to find a play that allows her the chance to do her larceny more than once - here as in CAUSE CELEBRE and AFTER THE DANCE she only appeared in one scene! Although not written by O'Neill it would have been nice if Ashford had interpolated the extra scene included in the 1930 film for Marie Dressler as Marthy when she turns up begging while Anna and Mat are in a Coney Island beer garden. The production was aided immeasurably by Paul Wills' adaptable set, Howard Harrison's evocative moody lighting and Adam Cork's sound design. All in all, another memorable Donmar visit.

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