It may be nearly a hundred years since Desire Under the Elms was written, but the stage still brims with the barely-repressed desire promised by the title of Eugene O’Neill’s controversial 1924 play. Rarely performed, the play goes beyond its deceptively simple setting and plot – a New England farm and a family dispute over its rightful ownership – to gain a scope that is evocative of Greek tragedy and even shows influences of Freudian thought. The plot may not be particularly surprising, but like the best Greek tragedies that is not where its strength is supposed to lie: the tension comes from the horrible, utterly unstoppable nature of the ending we can all see coming.
Morgan Watkins has his work cut out for him in the difficult central role of Eben, a young man still living and working on his parents’ farm, but entirely his mother’s son. She is dead long before the play’s opening scene, but her ghost hangs over the entire thing, fuelling Eben’s difficult relationship with his father Ephraim (Finbar Lynch, a little young-looking for the 76-year-old Ephraim, but marvellous), as their unhappy marriage came out of a legal dispute regarding to whom, exactly, the farm legally belonged. Eben believes it is his by right, from his mother, so when his father returns from town with a straightforward, rather glamorous thirty-something wife (Denise Gough) as a follow-up to Eben’s late mother, he tries his very best to set himself against her – but she has other plans for him.
It is very definitely Gough’s show: as Abbie, Ephraim’s far younger wife, she gives coherence to a character that seems to sometimes lack it in the script itself. There is a large shift in time during the interval, during which Abbie’s character seems to change greatly while off stage, but Gough copes well. At times, Abbie’s actions may stretch credibility, but we never fail to believe in her, thanks to a bravura performance and excellent direction from the ever-reliable Sean Holmes, the Lyric’s artistic director. It is also worth mentioning the extent to which Holmes uses music throughout the production, with Jason Baughan as ‘The Musician’ taking to the stage with his guitar during scene changes. The music gives greater atmosphere and power to what has come before or is to follow, as well as rooting the play firmly in its setting and period. Personally, I couldn’t be happier about the apparent craze for live music in so many theatre productions I’ve seen over the last few years; it really adds something.
For all its strengths, though, Holmes’s revival of Desire Under the Elms is an easy production to like but a difficult one to love. Ian MacNeil’s set is frankly a little bizarre, with boxes of rooms being wheeled on and off between every scene, being spun full circle on their wheels like gigantic ballerinas as they slowly approach their position. It is very stylised looking, but I found it hard to tell if there was any substance behind. Although rather daring, I ultimately just found it distracting. Also, as I mentioned before, Eben seems an incredibly difficult character to get a handle on, and though Watkins’s efforts were certainly valiant and he is clearly a talented actor, it is not quite a strong enough central performance to lift this difficult and unusual play out of the realm of the good and into the remarkable.
Perhaps it was the feeling of removal created by the unreality of the set or perhaps it was simply the huge change in mood and pace between the first and second halves; whatever it was, I couldn’t help but leave the venue feeling impressed and yet curiously unmoved.
Desire Under the Elms is running at the Lyric Hammersmith until November 10th. For more information and tickets, see the Lyric Hammersmith website. Photo by Keith Pattison.