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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Desire Under The Elms
Lyric Hammersmith    Autumn 2012

Decades before Arthur Miller, Eugene O'Neill repeatedly attempted to raise the experience of ordinary Americans to the level of high tragedy. Most of his tries were ultimately unsuccessful, but there is something so glorious in the effort that even the partial achievements have dramatic power and grandeur. 

Desire Under The Elms mixes Oedipus, Hippolytus and Medea, all set on a stark New England farm. Young Eben Cabot hates his hard father Ephraim, idealises his dead mother and lives only for the old man's death when he can inherit the farm. But Ephraim takes a new young wife Abbie, a woman who has known hardship and is determined to make this farm hers. She offers to give Ephraim a son if he'll disown Eben, and then seduces Eben to produce that son. 

But what nobody counts on is Abbie and Eben actually falling in love. 

O'Neill raises this above the level of soap opera not just with the Greek tragic parallels (and the references I cited will give some hint of where the plot eventually goes), but by investing each of the three main characters with a depth of feeling that approaches obsession – Ephraim's hard religion, Abbie's determination to own something and Eben's confused mix of hatred, lust and longing for his mother. 

And so the job of any production is to communicate those depths so that the characters aren't just soap opera figures. And director Sean Holmes and his cast are partially successful enough to give at least some sense of the play's potential power. 

As Abbie, Denise Gough enters the play with the confidence of one who knows that she's found what she wants in life and that she has the power, mainly through her sexuality, to take and hold it. I might have wished to see more of her desperate need at the start, if only to prepare us for the desperate need for Eben's love she will show later, but Gough's choice establishes Abbie as a strong force and not just a prize for the men to fight over. 

The key to making Ephraim more than just a stock villain and cuckold is the man's religion, his conviction that a hard God requires hard men to lead hard lives, and Finbar Lynch conveys that quality without strain, investing the man with a dignity the turns of the plot can not take away. 

The weak link in the production is Morgan Watkins' Eben, the actor unable to find much more than generic gawky misfit in the lad. Granted, O'Neill gives him an enormous task by making Eben confuse his attraction to Abbie with his love for his mother, but some part of that psychological mess has to be communicated for the character to come alive. 

As I said, the play as written is a flawed work – I haven't even mentioned O'Neill's notorious tin ear for dialect – and a totally successful production might not be possible. It is a shame that there is such a hole at the centre of this one, but there is enough that is good going on around that weak point to make this worth seeing.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Desire Under The Elms - Lyric Hammersmith 2012

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