The protagonists of Eugene O’Neill’s 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Anna Christie are tossed up and down on waves of emotion as much as the sea on which their livelihoods depend. Drawing on his own early maritime experience, O’Neill contrasts the vast impersonal power of the sea with human beings’ insecurity and frailty as they struggle to shape their own destinies.
After 15 years apart, the eponymous Anna is reunited with her Swedish father Chris, who abandoned her as a five-year-old girl to sail around the world as a merchant seaman and is now a coal-barge captain on the American eastern seaboard. When shipwrecked Irish stoker Mat is rescued Anna is caught up in a whirlwind romance which her father opposes, but neither man knows that in the past she has had to resort to prostitution for survival whilst now desperately seeking redemption.
The play may creak at times like an old sea-vessel but Bob Ashford’s superbly helmed production brings out the mythic poetry within the melodrama, in this clash of nature and humanity, which also explores the conflicting masculine and feminine approaches to living. The cheery bustle of a spit-and-sawdust harbour-side bar is sharply contrasted with the cabin-fever tensions of life on-board, while the shipwreck rescue is stirringly enacted with the tilted stage rising and falling in the storm.
Designer Paul Wills’s ingeniously flexible design makes good use of wooden planking and window frames, with a fixed step-ladder down which protagonists climb from deck to the living quarters. Harrison’s atmospheric lighting and Adam Cork’s sea-shanty score and sound effects of fog horns and sea swell all add to the drama.
Anna’s opening lines (which were also the first that audiences heard Greta Garbo speak in her talkie debut in the 1930 film version) are memorable: “Gimme a whiskey – ginger ale on the side…And don’t be stingy, baby.” Here, Ruth Wilson beautifully captures the tough, independent, street-wise character of a woman who’s had to make her own way in a harsh world, while also subtly conveying the vulnerability and hope beneath her world-weary cynicism.
Jude Law’s brawny, bare-torsoed Mat makes a spectacular entrance, hoisted out of the sea by ropes and sliding down the deck. He gives a bravura, full-bodied performance of a passionate man with a mixture of blarney charm and violent temper, as quick to fight as to love. David Hayman also impresses as the free-roaming, commitment-shy Chris, who prefers the fluidity of the sea to the solidity of dry land. A sense of guilt leads to some belated paternal responsibility, but as a superstitious mariner he likes to put the blame on how things turn out on the most important character in the play: “that ole devil sea”.