In fact Rob Ashford’s production makes Eugene O’Neill’s play seem remarkably straight-forward: it is a play of redemption and reconciliation for Anna Christopherson, whose abandonment by her father at the age of five and subsequent abuse at the hands of relatives led her to a life of prostitution. Arriving in New York to find her father, Swedish barge captain Chris, she finds solace and love on his barge in the shape of Irish coal-stoker Mat Burke. But to be truly reborn she must first reveal her past.
The story is played out on Paul Wills’s effective set, which switches from New York bar to ship’s deck to barge cabin with ease, helped by a stage that rises at an angle to convey a ship swaying on high seas. Anna and Mat’s meeting, on the deck of the ship in fog, has an other-worldly atmosphere.
On stage for nearly the whole length of the play, Ruth Wilson captures Anna’s hardened self-defence system and independent spirit, which is gradually softened by her affection for Mat. Jude Law – arriving on stage over the side of a barge like a creature from the deep – puts in an animalistic, highly physical performance as Mat, a charismatic, rakish Irishman whose temper simmers beneath his rough charm. Prowling round the stage like a stag dominating his doe, Law makes Mat both attractive and slightly repugnant. His treatment of Anna like a possession he has a right to own is shattered by her revelation, which reveals his own hypocrisy.
Completing the central trio, David Hayman excels – and manages to maintain his Swedish accent – as Chris, a proud yet weak, befuddled man who would rather bury his head in his beloved sea than face up to Anna’s brutal history. The scene when he and Mat face off over Anna is one of raw energy, again evoking animals rutting over a female.
It is this element of the story that, for me, will never sit well, despite the qualities of Ashford’s production. Though Anna finds her redemption, it is bittersweet in that it comes at the hands of two men so quick to place blame at the feet of a victimised woman. I rather wish Anna had the means to make it without them.