I 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.
O’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.
They 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….
Like 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.
It’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.
When 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.
Matthew 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.
Michael 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