“Ye make a slick pair of murderin’ turtle-doves”
It’s been a slow but increasingly steady journey into the world of Eugene O’Neill for me: since 2010’s Beyond The Horizon, high profile productions of Anna Christie and Long Day’s Journey Into Night confirmed his reputation was indeed well earned (I do like to be able to make up my own mind on such things, I hate being told “so and so is the greatest playwright” and being expected just to accept it). And after The Hairy Ape at the Southwark Playhouse, it is now the turn of the Lyric Hammersmith to get in on the action with Sean Holmes’ production of his 1924 play Desire Under The Elms.
Drawing heavily from Greek tragedy and in particular the tale of Phaedra, O’Neill locates his story in 19th century New England but mines a similar vein of earth-shattering catastrophe. Son of his father’s second wife, Eben is determined to secure the family farm for his inheritance. He pays off his two older half-brothers as they depart for the Gold Rush, but his father Ephraim is a randy old goat and marries for the third time, scuppering Eben’s plan as his new young wife Abbie stakes her own claim. But matters are further problematized by an illicit attraction between son and stepmother and when Abbie falls pregnant…well, do you think there’ll be a happy ending?
Predictably, it is a punishingly bleak play. Twanging guitar music is played live throughout and Ian McNeil’s intricately designed set combines with some evocative sound and lighting work from James Farncombe and Christopher Shutt respectively to set the dark mood of swirling emotion that dominates the latter two thirds of the play. It takes a while to get there though, the opening section with the brothers is an odd way to set up the story and doesn’t quite feel as connected as it could to the play as a whole.
It comes alive though with Denise Gough’s fierce performance as Abbie, a complex force of nature to be reckoned with, blazing a trail across the family homestead, whether with Finbar Lynch’s commanding pater-familias Ephraim (a slightly odd casting choice as the character is much older than Lynch) or Morgan Watkins’ lust-ridden Eben. And the spiral down to the deeply tragic conclusion that leaves everyone shattered is powerfully drawn in Holmes’ production.
But for all this, it just didn’t really connect with me. The heightened style of the tragedy meant it never really gripped me or my emotions – the opening scene had much to do with this I think – and the tragic tale never quite engaged me enough to really connect with the drama.