Review – Desire Under the Elms, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 30th September 2017

Desire Under the ElmsI must have been a very mature teenager. Why else would I have read voraciously almost all Eugene O’Neill’s plays during the long summer of 1976? I’d seen Olivier’s famous Long Day’s Journey Into Night on TV and thought to myself Now That’s What I Call Drama, Volume One. There was a revival of The Iceman Cometh by the RSC that year – I didn’t see it, although the title intrigued me so much – so I decided to read up on O’Neill’s back catalogue. No one else I knew was reading him. Mourning Becomes Electra became my favourite. Eugene O’Neill sure knew how to create a fancy title.

DUTE EphraimO’Neill’s introduction to Desire Under the Elms states that it’s set in a New England farmhouse in the year 1850. No coincidence this date, as it’s the beginning of the Gold Rush to California, the newest state to join the United States, and as much a beacon of hope and inspiration as Moscow is to Chekhov’s characters. The play opens with brothers Simeon and Peter fantasising over what it would be like to leave the miserable farm behind and go hunting for gold in Californi-a (pronounced Californ-eye-ay). But their father, 75-year-old Ephraim, is out west and they feel they have to stay at home until he returns.

DUTE Simeon and EbenThey share the farmhouse with their half-brother Eben, who’s lamenting the death of his mother, and has no love lost for his father. When Ephraim returns with a young wife, Abbie, less than half his age, it’s clear she’s got her eye on inheriting the farmhouse. Simeon and Peter sell their shares in the farmhouse to Eben and head off to Californi-a to seek their fortune. This just leaves Eben and Abbie at the farmhouse. With Ephraim out working all day long, Abbie falls pregnant, and Ephraim assumes it’s his, but the truth may be somewhat different….

DUTE Peter and SimeonLike many of O’Neill’s plays, it’s based on Greek tragedy; in this case Euripides’ Hippolytus. Phaedra attempts to seduce Theseus’ chaste son Hippolytus, but when she fails she commits suicide, not before having left a letter accusing Hippolytus of rape. Theseus banishes Hippolytus as a punishment, but Hippolytus is killed by a bull, after which Theseus discovers the truth. Unlike Phaedra, Abbie’s attempts to seduce Eben are perfectly successful (not that he was chaste anyway) and it isn’t suicide that she considers but murder.

DUTE Abbie and EbenIt’s actually a very simple plot and could easily have been written for just three actors. Simeon and Peter are purely introductory characters helping to set the scene, and the other villagers are just there to fill the stage and act as Rumour. As I remember from my teenage years, Desire Under the Elms is one of the more difficult of his plays to read, because O’Neill wrote it in that interminable North American dialect drawl. Everything is “purty”, parents are “Maw” and “Paw”, they eat and drink “vittles” and “likker”. On the page it’s dry and dusty, but on the stage of the Crucible it really comes to life. I don’t have the sharpest ear, but the speech patterns came over (to me at least) as though they were from the Southern states – I clearly don’t know my American accents. By contrast, all Mrs Chrisparkle could hear was an Irish twang, which would, at least, probably accurately reflect the characters’ heritage. But none of that matters when you’re dealing with the raw emotions of an inevitable love triangle, and someone who commits an unlikely crime passionel to resolve it.

DUTE Abbie and EphraimWhen you enter the Crucible auditorium, there’s a huge visual impact from the amazing set that Chiara Stephenson has created. Long tufts of grass, wheat maybe, lurk in the distance, suggesting fields or dunes; sand covers the foreground. The simple mechanism of sweeping sand away in straight lines creates separate acting areas on the stage; most notably a demarcation wall separating the farmhouse from its grounds. Jon Clark’s moody lighting suggests different times of day and different emotional impulses at work. Nick Greenhill’s portentous sound design evokes the most realistic and invasive thunderstorm since poor Tom was on the blasted heath. There’s even a working water pump at the very front of the stage – which I have to say somewhat obstructed the view from seats B20 & 21, especially when people are seated at the dining table.

DUTE FiddlerMatthew Kelly is a fantastic Ephraim. He looks every inch the grizzled old man, wayward hair and beard unkempt through so many years of toil. If this is how he’s smartened himself up for scoring himself a 35-year-old woman, heaven knows how ragged he must have appeared before. Bellowing at the world for all its failings, and belligerent towards Eben for his perceived weakness and inadequacy, this is a man with a strong sense of his own importance and not a clue about how pathetic he really is. This is captured in his grotesque over-the-top final Act dance; he’s got a lot of life in him but no ability to shape it into something positive. It’s a mark of Mr Kelly’s great performance that you can both despise and feel sorry for him at the same time.

DUTE Matthew Kelly as EphraimMichael Shea plays Eben as a man with few principles – a thief, user of prostitutes and happy to steal his father’s woman off him for the pleasure and the power. You feel that he has so much pent-up anger inside him that he will explode at any moment. He’s a wretch, though; and Aoife Duffin’s Abbie is no better, instantly falling for this grim chap with no ambition or style. Ms Duffin really brings out all Abbie’s remorse, confusion and horror at what she’s done at the end of the play. She and Mr Shea make a truly agonised and agonising couple, as the horrendous consequences of what’s happened dawn on them. I also really liked Sule Rimi and Theo Ogundipe as Simeon and Peter, very convincing as the old hands who’ve seen it all and can’t wait to get away to a new life. In a sense, it’s a shame that we never find out what happens to them; on the other hand, that just proves how focussed O’Neill is on his menage à trois.

An excellent opportunity to catch a great cast perform a hidden classic. It’s important to keep Eugene O’Neill’s creative spirit alive! Desire Under the Elms plays until 14th October.

Production photos by Marc Brenner

Review – Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Milton Keynes Theatre, 15th March 2012

Long Day's Journey Into NightYou can’t keep a good writer down, and I’m delighted to see this revival of Long Day’s Journey Into Night doing a brief tour before taking up residence at the Apollo in the West End. I’ve always been a big fan of Eugene O’Neill, ever since I saw the TV adaptation of Long Day’s Journey Into Night in the 1970s with Laurence Olivier. (Olivier played Tyrone – he wasn’t sitting next to me in the living room.) Inspired by this play, at the age of 16 I read every single one of O’Neill’s works I could lay my hands on. Centuries later, I have achieved this ambition to see LDJIN live on stage. Any producers reading, by the way, please, I’d also like to see a production of Mourning Becomes Electra. I’m telling you all this because I want to emphasise that I had really high hopes of this production; maybe too high.

The set looks fantastic. In fact, Mrs Chrisparkle was verbalising her astonishment at it before she’d even spotted which row we were sitting in. Wonderful off stage glimpses of further rooms are offered, like the dining room and the hall. Classy wooden panelling abounds. However, given that the script is full of criticisms of the house – Mary says it was never a home, and Tyrone is constantly criticised for his stinginess, I felt in retrospect that maybe it ought to have looked a little shabbier.

The play has many autobiographical elements and was clearly inspired by O’Neill’s relationship with his father. It’s stamped with O’Neill hallmarks all over it – observing the Greek unities of time, place and theme thereby lending it an air of Greek tragedy; featuring a character whose life is changed by time spent at sea; and dwelling on ill-health and reliance on drink and drugs.

Laurie MetcalfWithout question the evening belongs to Laurie Metcalf as Mary. If the day is a journey – and the title of the play suggests it is – then hers is the longest. From the moment she walks on the stage you know this is a woman who is trying hard, but not coping. The language of the play pussyfoots around what might be wrong, but it’s a good guessing-game for half an hour or more. Laurie Metcalf is spellbinding with her flashes of nonsensical illogical reactions, which you put down to her being a worrying mother – which she is (as well), all papered over with a respectable air of Connecticut failure. O’Neill gives the character of Mary wonderfully self-contradicting things to say which Miss Metcalf carries off so believably. It’s an amazing performance. Occasionally she talks over other members of the family in a way that only a mother would, trying to hang on to a maternal role with which she is comfortable, still opening huge gashes of vulnerability as she journeys through this dreadful day. She is astoundingly good.

David SuchetHer Tyrone is played by David Suchet. I have vague recollections of Olivier’s Tyrone – my memory is that he played it almost schizophrenically, as a man who could be both a source of pure childish joy and a total monster. Mr Suchet plays Tyrone as a less extreme man, and I think that is truer to O’Neill’s vision. You get the sense that his kindness, when he shows it, is slightly reserved, and that his fury, when aroused, could have even more bite than it does. Two aspects of O’Neill’s description of Tyrone that I don’t think Mr Suchet quite achieves are the fact that he is meant to be unmistakably an actor, by word, tone and bearing; personally I thought he could have been retired from any number of jobs. He should also have an underlying sense of stolid Irish peasant. I sensed more refinement than peasant. Nevertheless, it’s a very good performance and his emotional pendulum for all his family members swings back and forth very credibly.

Trevor WhiteThe two sons are played extremely well. Jamie is played by Trevor White, very accurately portraying the underachieving disappointments of life, declining into an alcoholic stupor as the night wears on, showing a surprising delicacy of feeling for a whore named Fat Violet, whilst willing his own brother to fail. Mr White should take it as a compliment that he captured just the right level of degeneracy for this part.

Kyle SollerEdmund, the O’Neill character, is played by Kyle Soller. I have to admit that we weren’t really fans when we saw him in The Talented Mr Ripley or The Government Inspector, but I think he is much more suited to roles where he isn’t required to show off. This time he nails the role perfectly. His anxieties, administered with alcohol, are very convincing and realistic – neither manic, nor blasé; and his willingness to fit in with what his big brother wants, combined with his stomping off upstairs like a teenager were all very accurate. The two occasions he is called upon to punch Jamie are very deftly done too. The cast is completed by Rosie Sansom as Cathleen, the “second girl”, who turns in a nice study of a respectable girl who looks after herself pretty well – a touch of the blarney without going over the top.

Rosie SansomBut it’s the structure of the evening that doesn’t work. O’Neill has structured this play perfectly; four acts at different stages of the day – breakfast, lunchtime, teatime and night-time. However, they have chosen to make the interval fall between acts three and four, which I think is a big mistake. Act Two is the natural breakpoint. It’s almost half-way through the play; it ends with the men going off on their various errands, including Edmund finding out whether he has tuberculosis or not, and with Mary’s brief soliloquy that makes you really worried as to how she is going to turn out later on. These are all good moments on which to hang the break. Act Three naturally resolves the plot cliff-hangers, so ideally would come afterwards, and is also the scene were Mary’s deterioration becomes more and more apparent. The mood of Act Four is very different because it doesn’t progress the plot as such in the same way; it’s all about character revelation instead. So, with the current structure, when you get back from your interval Pinot Grigio, it’s almost as though you’ve joined a different play. Added to which, Mary doesn’t reappear until the very end of the play; and you really miss her, as she is the best thing about the whole thing.

Been a long time since a book cost 95pSo nostalgia let me down slightly, as it sadly often does. I still think it’s a very strong play, superbly written – quite possibly one of the finest plays of the 20th century – and this production features some excellent acting and an award-winning performance from Ms Metcalf. But the final act doesn’t punch you in the guts in the way it ought. Somehow the accumulated tensions before the interval just sap away. Mrs C thought it was a good idea that they are doing the pre-West End tour so as to get it absolutely right. I asked her what they needed to concentrate on. “Maintaining accents” was her sharp rebuke – always a pet hate of hers. True, there was also a little bumping into furniture and knocking over water, and the sound effect of Mary walking around upstairs was frankly ludicrous. But these things can come right I’m sure. But if they continue to divide the play after Act Three, everyone’s going to have to up their game for that last scene. A final plea: it’s a three-hour Eugene O’Neill drama. Would it be too much to ask for a twenty minute interval, not just fifteen?