Theatre Review - Desire Under the Elms

Inspired by the Greek myth of Phaedra, Eugene O’Neill’s claustrophobic tale of love, lust and infanticide enjoys a welcome revival at the Lyric Hammersmith.

DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS is set in 1850 on a farm in New England. The Californian Gold Rush is in full sway and offers a tantalising alternative to working the land.

An obsessive sense of entitlement, combined with a lust for land and profit, is the undoing of O’Neill’s farming family. When Eben Cabot (Morgan Watkins) discovers that his 76-year old father Ephraim (Finbar Lynch) has married for the third time, he persuades his older half-brothers to leave the farm and pursue their dreams of gold in the West. He pays them off so that he can claim ownership of his mother’s farm as his rightful inheritance. But then his elderly father returns with his young, ambitious wife, Abbie, (Denise Gough) and suddenly there is talk of further children.

Abbie is upfront about her desire to preside over her own home and this throws Eben into a quandary. At first they can only spit and snarl at each other, but the electrifying sexual attraction between the two soon overwhelms them.

Director Sean Holmes draws out the haunting sensuality of O’Neill’s drama and sensitive performances from Gough and Watkins emphasise the psychological complexity of the characters. There is a wonderfully poignant moment when, alone, they both listen against each others’ bedroom walls before giving in to their desire. Abbie bears a child that Ephraim believes is his.

Is it lust or love? We are kept guessing as to Abbie’s motives for ensnaring Eben, and his true feelings for her. Ultimately, it is the characters’ obsession with land and inheritance that poisons Abbie and Eben’s relationship with tragic consequences.

Ian MacNeil’s imaginative design includes a walkway that juts into the auditorium, giving the sense of wide open space extending into the horizon. This is neatly contrasted with his interior set – a number of revolving rooms with oppressively low ceilings.

There is an exquisite lyricism to O’Neill’s writing. A woman is described as smelling “like a warm ploughed field”, and Ephraim delivers a memorable monologue on “lonesomeness”. Jason Baughan’s atmospheric slide guitar, accompanying the scene changes, adds to the general air of melancholy.

Originally published by Theatreworld