Saturday, 13 October 2012

Desire Under The Elms - review

Written by: Lawson (@NaomiMLawson)

Lyric Hammersmith, London

There’s greed, lust, adultery, passion and echoes of Greek tragedy as director Sean Holmes transports us to mid-19th Century Maine in his production of Eugene O’Neill’s American classic, Desire Under the Elms. In our sexualised and desensitised modern world, what the once banned play now lacks in shock value it makes up for elsewhere.

Brothers Eben (Morgan Watkins), Peter (Fergus O’Donnell) and Simeon (Mikel Murfi) Cabot toil day and night on the family farm, all wishing to claim it as their own once their domineering father Ephraim (Finbar Lynch) dies. But when Ephraim returns with his new beautiful, young bride Abby (Denise Loughlin), their arrival spells a downward spiral, embroiled in betrayal, deceit and a deadly love affair.
Peter and Simeon escape to the West to find their fortune in gold and both O’Donnell and Murfi (also commendable as Movement Director) do well to convey the glee of two brothers finally free of their monotonous lives. As they skip along the boardwalk into the audience singing ‘Oh Susanna’, it seems a shame that it’s the last we’ll see of them. Lynch as the overbearing Ephraim maintains his hard exterior with a rigorous fervour, but when proclaiming his loneliness to his unloving wife, the toughness slips and it’s hard not to pity him slightly.

It is however, Gough who truly wins the audience over, from scheming temptress to impassioned lover, where the liberality of her movements as she reaches eagerly on her tiptoes to kiss Eber gives the impression of a love struck teenager. But perhaps more striking is the absolute palpability of her grief and agony as Abby faces the tragic consequences of the second act.

Watkins’ Eben is slightly more problematic, whilst not a bad performance some of the deliverance comes across a little flat. Still, as the play progresses he seems to settle into the role more, and there are moments such as the confrontation between the two lovers after Ephraim reveals Abby’s initial intentions, that are near perfect.

Ian MacNeil’s staging is another contentious issue. Stage hands in period dress (costumes by Hyemi Shin) move individual rooms on and off the stage as each scene requires, accompanied by a musician (Jason Baughan) and his guitar. It’s understandable why this could be distracting and it’s true that the interruption of the more poignant scenes is slightly detrimental to the flow. But with time, and the aid of the music, it becomes easier to accept. The stage design itself, twinned with James Farcombe’s lighting design sets the atmosphere impeccably; the silhouettes against the square screen of the sky and the bare stage really do create the feel of the ‘purty’ farm.

It has its imperfections and may not live up to the hype and scandal of the 1920’s, but excels instead in demonstrating the rawness of human instinct and emotion. Will it reach the classic status of the original text? Probably not. But an engaging and, at times, haunting production worth seeing all the same.  

This production runs until 10 November 2012. 

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