First Night: Anna Christie, Donmar Warehouse, London

4.00

Muscle-bound Law provides power in epic tale of the sea

It's a token of the high regard in which Michael Grandage is held that the starry alumni of previous in-house productions are flocking back to the Donmar Warehouse for his farewell season as artistic director there. Jude Law and Ruth Wilson were prominent in two of the most talked-about stagings of this regime – respectively as Hamlet and as an Olivier Award-winning Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire. They converge now on Rob Ashford's pitch-perfect revival of Anna Christie, a Eugene O'Neill play first performed in 1921. Suffused literally and symbolically by the sea and compromised by a calculatedly unpersuasive "happy" ending, it's a piece that, in this beautifully acted version, retains an undimmed capacity to shock because of the emotional daring of the twist it gives to the tear-stained convention of the reformed tart with a heart.

The battered Anna seeks out the Swedish seafaring father that she has not seen since she was sent, aged five, to the supposed protection of relatives inland. A scrawny mass of defensive guilt and pathetically belated pride in David Hayman's splendid performance, her feckless, thick-accent father is blind to the signs of her past as a prostitute. He conveniently blames all his failures of responsibility on "dat ole divil sea", atmospherically evoked here by a tilting deck of a stage, rolling mist and mournful horns. To Anna, as she bathes her upturned face in the fog, the sea represents a chance of purification, a conviction that seems to be reinforced when a storm flings a soaking, bare-chested Irish stoker, Mat Burke, aboard. Sporting a newly muscle-bound torso, Law vibrantly animates the tension between this character's playfully self-amused exploitation of the cocky-stud stereotype and his violently bigoted sanctimony.

Wilson is magnificent in every department as Anna. She manages to combine a caustic, world-weary cynicism and a vulnerability to new experience, an unatrophied poetry of the soul and hard-bitten urban vernacular (her accent is often like a foretaste of Guys and Dolls). With a modernity born of suffering, she makes the two insensitively sparring men look like moral dinosaurs, especially in the extraordinary scene where their reproving passivity goads her into an infuriated declaration of the truth and a blazing exposure of the double standards by which these brothel-frequenting males live.

What is still truly bracing about O'Neill's portrayal of a former prostitute is that it succeeds in avoiding both of the cliches (the uncontaminated "heart of gold" angle and the terminally repentant heroine-with-a-past gambit) that come with this territory. As for the "happy" ending, Ashford's excellent production makes it feel at once hollow and hauntingly ambiguous. The crude terms on which Mat is reconciled to Anna (extorting a confession, on oath, that she has never loved another man) make you wonder if he can have learned anything at all from the ordeal of the play or whether this is just a face-saving device on his part. Comically, the two bickering males are about to set sail on the same ship with Anna keeping house for them on shore like some land-lubber mermaid. Yet as Wilson climbs to the top deck and gazes out over the waves, almost forgetful of them, there's a strong mystical sense that the trio will be lucky ever to be reunited and that it's the deep destiny of this ex-hooker to be wedded not to a man, but to the renewing and bereaving sea.

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