Anna Christie - Review


New Venture Theatre has form when it comes to American drama, and Eugene O’Neill’s one comedy Hughie featured in its last season. O’Neill’s 1921 Anna Christie earned him his second Pulitzer, and it’s different to many of his other plays in exploring redemption, new beginnings grounded in honesty. As long as you go through an O’Neill kind of hell first.

Barry Purchese’s slightly edited version of Anna Christie rightly pares some extraneous characters (often added to give employment); there’s now five. In fact apart from the first scene, it’s even clearer that Anna Christie is essentially a three-hander. This production underlines that in Jerry Lyne’s atmospheric but superbly lucid production.

Not only are some extraneous extras at the start shaved, the delivery of different accents is given weight and measure; it’s helped by Purchese’s decision to pare down some of the clunky ‘by Jiminys’ too. There’s more than enough left. Everything, no matter the density of accent, is utterly clear – which helps make the climactic third act so electrifying.

Adam Kinkaid’s flexible Upstairs set locates an upstage centre door as Martin Ryan’s Johnny the Priest, like most bartenders shabbily clean, whittles down a tenebrous life in a bottle-refracted bar. Sparse chairs and tables discover Lyn Snowdon’s Marthy, a raucous demi-mondaine, as much as you can use French on New York’s waterfront. Act 2 dissolves to a barge deck with an artfully poised skylight with lights downstage centre and ropes with attendant use of smoke as fog. The last two acts relocate under the barge’s hatches in a cabin, with bleak comforts only slightly warmer than the bar. Phil Palmer’s lighting and Seb Warrington’s rig suffuse a grainy whoosh of light shuttered and squeezed through doors and sometimes fog-lights operated by Alex Epps. It’s a seamless concept, absorbing assistant director and stage manager Ulrike Schiller’s skills as well as Lyne’s. Ian Black’s sound wafts in shore noises, and superbly in sea and fog in the atmospherics of Act 2. The music’s unexpected: Vaughan William’s Tallis Fantasia, written the year this is set: 1910; as well as Dvorak’s New World Symphony Largo and a French Cello improv, like Matthew Barley’s, an evocative, inspired choice.

Anna Christie’s a young woman whom her father Chris Christopherson (Mark Lester) is waiting for, at Johnny the Priest’s bar, where he tells the gnarly warm Marthy she might need to move out. She’s used to this, no hard feelings. Lester conveys Christopherson’s thick Swedish accent (O’Neill’s text makes you trip over every damned glottal) and thicker hopelessness. ‘Old devil sea’ takes his drive, the way sailors spend and are robbed, returning straight to sea. It’s his refrain: all’s explained, even excused by his knowing collapse from responsibility – like bringing up a motherless child.

His Swedish wife dying, Christopherson sent Anna to farming relatives in Minnesota but never visited in fifteen years. A twenty-year-old nurse, she’s asked to come east. He misses her, leaving briefly, but Marthy recognizes her own as Isabella McCarthy Somerville lights in, weary and famished from travel. Her concentrated presence is strong enough for her to turn it down, sheathing her fire in raw Midwest twang: not quite Hick, not big city. In contrast to Lester she speaks rapidly, more fluent, more raspingly used to barter and defence. It’s closer to Marthy’s raw tones.

When Christopherson returns, he finds he barely recognizes the cigarette-smoking hard-drinking adult who’s roughed it in every way. Only Marthy guesses how much. She’s simplified her patronymic to the Christie of the title. The slow-circling tenderness around Snowdon and McCarthy Somerville from snappiness to warmth is summed up as the latter identifies Snowdon as ‘me in forty years’. Snowdon’s raucously convincing Marthy is as finely judged in a saw of noise as Ryan’s flat-toned reticence occasionally rivets us to his stillness, his listening and saying nothing. Snowdon and Ryan are seen no more as father and daughter edgily reunite. Anna almost flees.

We next see them as ten days later they reminisce on a fog-swirled deck, snaked with rope coils. McCarthy Somerville memorably gives expression as she does throughout to the sea’s cleanness, how she’d bathe and become reborn. It’s the mirror reverse of Old Devil Sea: like her father with that phrase, the daughter returns to hers. Such an ablutive trope – Catholic imagery – might seem strange in Lutheran Swedes, though O’Neill and the next protagonist are steeped in Catholicism. O’Neill’s symbolism works far better psychologically here than in some of his plays. Cleanness is a desperate plea.

Anna’s independent enough to laugh off her new-found father’s over-protectiveness. Certainly she’s not in need of protection from a sailor, Mat Burke, Chris Gates’ lanky Irish stoker rescued as the last survivor of a ship crashing into them with his lifeboat. Fresh dynamics flood the stage as McCarthy Somerville spars and edges closer to Gates’ hulking vulnerability. Lester’s heavy father antics should be telling, and Lester vividly conveys his new-found but shrunken authority in being unable to direct a daughter’s welfare. We see Christopherson’s powers slowly leaking away, cajoled by both his daughter and the man he’s giving hospitality to. Lester’s consummate in conveying his waning bluster.

It’s the third act set ten days later that explodes. Christopherson’s still trying to dissuade Anna: he’s lost. She declares she’s not good enough to marry Burke in any case. It’s the smart-talking swaggering Burke who’s suddenly discomfited. O’Neill builds up the two men’s conflict with each other and wildly inaccurate assumptions of who Anna Christie is. Finally she explodes and tells them of her rape by the youngest of her cousins – Marthy had heard this, and of her trying to be a governess for two years. And then a life in ‘one of those houses’. It’s perhaps the most thrilling moment I can remember in an NVT performance. At this moment, and elsewhere, it’s a production that would attract praise on a professional London stage.

The crushed Christopherson reacts one way, Burke wholly another. Only an actor as powerful as McCarthy Somerville can convince us of such double standards alluded to by Anna’s character as she declares she’s changed, she never loved but hated those men who used her. It’s one of her recurring outbursts, the hatefulness of men. Now she rounds on the only two she’s cared for. It’s a magnificent moment; you wish she’d follow through, shake Burke off her feet.

Gates, swaggeringly then dangerously turned, matches his partner here. – indeed he’s consistently strong: quixotically adoring, viciously hypocritical, damaged by church and the bankrupt state of men’s assumptions. Gates’ quivering rage enacts the way he’s ‘destroyed’ as his Irish expression claims, in this case a crumbling tower, crushed under his cultural baggage. Certainly mutterings in the audience underline our own outrage.

But McCarthy Somerville has to perform Anna’s own slow crumbling: she can’t bear Burke’s violent disgust. In an act so scrapingly agonised, you both feel for Anna and still feel with her desperate love. Tracing a fiery arc, McCarthy Somerville carries her ferocity to extinction.

How this somehow plays out, in the last act two days later, is spellbinding. If you think you know O’Neill, be prepared for surprises. This is a superb production nearly pitch-perfect in every respect, directed with air around it but a strong lean focus on the sea-girt triangle shaping all the protagonists’ lives. Gates, Lester and above all the mesmerising McCarthy Somerville render this as satisfying as any production could. Do see it.

Review by Simon Jenner - first published on