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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Donmar Warehouse


  Jude Law and Ruth Wilson/ Ph: Johan Persson

It’s spectacularly tempestuous theatre, this masterly revival of Eugene O’Neill’s 1921 drama. Rob Ashford’s direction ebbs, surges and rages, and the cast – led by Ruth Wilson as Anna; David Hayman as her sea-faring Swedish father Chris Christopherson; and Jude Law as Mat Burke, the Irish stoker who falls for her battered heart’s siren song – act up a devastating storm. The power of the production is visceral, and the lives it conjures are rich, ripped ragged by circumstance and lived out in a perfectly realised world of physical rigour and gale-force emotions.
In a coastal bar, Anna – the daughter whom Chris abandoned in a Minnesota farm when he returned to riding the waves of “that old devil sea” – tracks down her father. Far from the clean-living rural upbringing Chris envisioned for her, she’s led an existence of hard graft and exploitation and has latterly been working in a brothel – a trade that, in Wilson’s tough, bruised performance, has clearly left her wary, worn and more than a little bitter. The regular barflies circle her with predatory interest; yet when he arrives, Chris is blind to reality, and, clinging to Anna as if she were the means of his redemption and the conduit of assuagement of his guilt, he takes her aboard the coal barge that he captains.
Adam Cork’s music and sound design is a cacophony of stirring sea shanty, creaking rigging, howling wind and foghorn. Combined with Paul Wills’ superb design, it is absorbingly atmospheric. As father and daughter board the barge, the wooden planking beneath their feet rears up and tilts alarmingly, and sea mist swirls in the lamp-lit murky night.
Into this heaving, treacherous, slippery setting clambers Law’s shipwrecked Mat, hauling himself on to the deck by a sodden rope, bare-chested, dripping, bleeding. He sees Wilson’s Anna – who is herself half-bewitched by the elemental power of the ocean – at first as a tormenting mermaid. The attraction between this woman, who has made giving pleasure her profession but has so little experience of receiving it, and the braggart Irishman with a long history of sexual adventures, who claims to long to settle down, almost feels intense enough to set the barge alight. But Chris will not relinquish his daughter so easily, and the ensuing struggle sees Anna torn and tossed about between the two men like a rag doll.
There is a melodramatic strain to O’Neill’s writing, yet though Ashford’s production is full throttle throughout, it remains remarkably truthful. Wilson and Law are an incendiary pairing. Bearded and muscular, Law, forever clutching at the crucifix his mother gave him, is a knotted mass of appetite and fierce, ill-focused morality, while Wilson’s Anna gropes for a happiness she’s not sure she merits, with a blend of hunger and hopelessness. Hayman, meanwhile, is by turns a maddening but curiously touching figure as Chris, full of useless self-reproach, desperate to make amends yet as impotent in the face of the passions of the daughter he turned his back on as he would be before a tidal wave. These are captivating performances in a production that grips its audience and, on a roaring tide of raw feeling, sweeps it effortlessly away.



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