7 September 2011

Anna Christie at Donmar Warehouse

I'll start with an overdue credit.

One of the reasons that I have gone to so many more plays this year is thanks to the efforts of Elaine Bodenitz of the Logica Sports and Social Club.

She arranges the group bookings that take me to see things that I would otherwise have missed or overlooked. Thanks Elaine :-)

And it was thanks to her that I found myself at the Donmar Warehouse (my first time there) to see Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie which won the 1922 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

It was the play's heritage that attracted me and the presence of Jude Law that clinched it.

I'm not quite sure where Theatreland is meant to be as you never seem to be that far away from a theatre in London but the Donmar Warehouse feels a little bit off the beaten track for theatregoers sitting as it does among the high-style and high-cost shops just to the North of Covent Garden underground station.

The theatre is in a warehouse, as its name promises, and that is good. Inside it reminded me of places like the Young Vic, Arcola and Orange Tree.

It is bare, functional, industrial and charming because of all that.

And, as you might have deduced from the photo of the stage, it has a gallery and I was sitting in it. Downstairs the stage is surrounded by the audience on three sides making it intimate in just the way that I like.

The picture also shows the simplicity of the staging with the wooden floor and walls providing the framework for a bar, the deck of a boat and the inside of a boat moored in a harbour.

All that is required to complete the transformation from one to the other is the placement of a few props such as a few bar stools or a bed.

All looked set well at that point; an award-wining play, a good theatre and a simple stage, all things that I like. Good omens.

The first of the main characters that we meet is Chris Christopherson who captains a small coal barge plying its trade on the East Coast of America.

Chris, we soon learn, is Swedish but gave his life to the sea many years ago. He had a wife back in Sweden but she had died. He was left with a five year old daughter who he palmed off with relatives in the farming communities of Minnesota.

Chris fatalistically blames the sea for everything that happens to him. The sea has killed many people that he knew, including members of his close family, but he cannot escape from its lure and nor does he want to.

He lives from day to day but generally happy with his lot. He has a loose relationship with a woman when we meet him but they are just ships passing in the night and she moves on. Their is no rancour or regret, this is just how things are.

David Hayman plays Chris brilliantly carrying the Swedish heritage and the fatalism with absolute conviction.

Then we meet Anna.

She has come looking for her father who she has not seen since she was abandoned as a five year-old. The bar is the only address she has for him and she writes to him there and arrives soon after Chris reads the letter. He's not in the bar when she arrives so we get to see a little of her before he does.

Anna is smartly dressed but sits comfortably in the sailors' bar drinking whiskey. That seems a little surprising at the time but becomes less so as we learn more about her.

She had had a very rough time growing up being treated as a slave by the family and being raped by one of the sons.

Ruth Wilson plays Anna with quiet emotion and grace.

Anna joins her father on the coal barge and during a storm they pick up some shipwrecked sailors, including the proud Irish stoker Mat Burke.

Mat is a simple (but not stupid) worker. He is proud of his strength developed from hard years of shovelling coal and has a girl in every port. Like Chris he is captivated by life at sea but does not share Chris' fatalism about it.

Mat (understandably) makes an earnest play for Anna as he recovers from his ordeal and after a few weeks he decides that he is going to marry her (she is not expected to have any choice in that). The rest of the play resolves around that decision.

Jude Law is sensational and is only prevented from dominating the show by the equally good performances from David Hayman and Ruth Wilson.

He could have been born for the part with his stoker's physique, curly ginger hair and thick Irish accent.

I could go on heaping praise on the play, production and acting but it's sufficient to say that it is faultless in every respect.

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