Unsuitable suitor: Jude Law alongside Ruth Wilson in Eugene O'Neill's "Anna Christie" (Johan Persson)
Jude Law is a highly bankable, rather spoilt British screen actor, whose best roles have been in films like The Talented Mr Ripley and Alfie, where he played self-absorbed, preening characters. Funny, that.
You may have gathered that I do not belong to the Jude fan club. Still, he is an unignorable actor. Last time I reviewed him in Hamlet, I had to fight my way through screaming girls in drainpipe jeans tearfully worshipping their overwrought student prince. They'll have a challenging night out at the Donmar, where Rob Ashford directs Eugene O'Neill's little-known play Anna Christie, with Jude as Mat Burke, impassioned suitor to Ruth Wilson's broken but hopeful Anna.
She is a fallen woman who arrives among the longshoremen to search for her errant father, a cheerfully dipsomaniac Swede played with verve, if a dodgy accent, by the stalwart David Hayman. As a sailor in thrall to the "old devil sea" and superstitiously wound up in its myths, he has packed Anna as a girl off to the midwest, where she's set on the road to prostitution by her abusive host family.
Can the fallen woman be redeemed by belated paternal love and a romance? When the play came to London in 1923 shortly after O'Neill wrote it, the critic James Agate noted wearily that "the theme is an inversion of that old French thing, the repentant courtesan...It comes into 20th-century drama like a tin can kicked down the street by a parcel of vigorous schoolboys." The question here is how credibly the can is kicked — and after a slow start, the lead duo do so rather well in a play which could easily tip into melodrama. When Burke is rescued from a sea-squall by Chris, Anna's loquacious father, a battle commences between the possessive old man and the young lover for control of the young woman, who must decide when to come clean about her past life as a member of Mrs Warren's profession.
The main problem Law has to contend with is that his character is an Irishman most women would sail the seven seas to avoid. By turns overbearing, violent, self-pitying and very drunk, he hardly strikes us as the best male catch, even among the extensive stock of O'Neill's damaged males. Law just about controls the quirks of language and dialect. He does however over-act with his (admittedly rather fabulous) body. When Burke returns from a bender to confront Anna about her past, Law skips down the barge ladder as nimbly as Nijinsky — unlikely for a sozzled sailor. Rarely a chance is missed to show off his torso or taut gluteus maximus — but then a load of tickets will be sold precisely on that basis. Certainly, Law's performance can't be faulted for energy and he is generous to his co-star Ruth Wilson, a relative newcomer to the West End, who shone in Through a Glass Darkly at the Almeida and is a star in the making on stage as well as screen.