Eugene O'Neill's "prostitute drama" (an entire genre according to the programme notes - who knew!) Anna Christie starts Michael Grandage's final season in charge of the Donmar Warehouse, noted for the big names returning to the venue after successes there in the past. So the lead role goes to Ruth Wilson, an Olivier-winner here for Streetcar a couple of years ago, while the bigger star power comes from Jude Law, whose Hamlet Grandage directed. I avoid reviews but I'm given to understand that it's been compulsory for all reviews of Rob Ashford's production to include the word "torso." Not that there was any way you could miss it - Law's first entrance on stage sees him climbing up the back of the set, topless and soaking wet. And quite preposterously buff - the opening scene doesn't feature his character and we came to the conclusion all those rehearsals he wasn't needed for must have been spent in the gym. (Not that it's entirely for cosmetic reasons, in his angrier moments he's required to lift and/or chuck around some heavy objects. And people.)
Chris (David Hayman) is an ageing Swedish sailor who sent his daughter Anna (Wilson) to live with cousins in Minnesota when she was five. He hasn't seen her for 15 years until she comes to meet him in New York after an "illness." What Chris doesn't know is that the idyllic world he thought he'd sent her to was nothing of the sort - after being raped by her cousin aged 16, Anna ran away to a brothel. Staying on her father's boat, Anna feels like she can begin a new life, but when they rescue a bunch of shipwrecked sailors including stoker Mat Burke (Law) who instantly falls for her, the things she's been keeping secret start to complicate her life again. The three central performances are very strong, backed up by a supporting cast including Jenny Galloway (who I'm still not convinced isn't Simon Russell Beale in drag) as Chris' lady friend, and hottie Henry Pettigrew from Beautiful Burnout as a barman. The set looks deceptively simple but hides some surprises - designer Paul Wills has managed to get some hydraulics into the Donmar's usually no-frills stage, helping to create much of the visual impact of Law's initial entrance. There's a lot to admire but both Ian and I felt there were a couple of things stopping us from entirely engaging with the material. Firstly the accents, which are invariably heavy but not great - while you can see every emotion Hayman projects, his bizarre Swedish accent is largely incomprehensible. Law's Oirish one is a bit ripe for parody as well though it's not entirely his fault - the dialogue O'Neill gives him might as well be the words "begorrah bejaysus to be sure, to be sure, to be sure" on repeat. There's also Ashford's odd placing of the interval very late on: The first part runs at 1 hour 50 minutes, the same as the first part of Emperor and Galilean, except in that case there was a lot of warning. Here the especially long first half isn't advertised, and while I just about made it to the interval we did spot at least one woman who had to run off to the loo early. It's quite a lot to take in mentally as well as physically, and leaves just 25 minutes for the conclusion, which ends up feeling like it's ended before it's properly begun.
Still, there's plenty to admire here, especially in Wilson's performance, and for all the intense subject matter there's lots of moments that lighten the tension, many coming from Law and his character's trademark bravado.
Anna Christie by Eugene O'Neill is booking until the 8th of October at the Donmar Warehouse.