Review: Desire Under the Elms, Lyric Hammersmith
Denise Gough in Desire Under the Elms until November 10 at the Lyric Hammersmith (Picture credit, Hugo Glendinning)
A gripping tale of greed, lust and pride, The Lyric Company’s production of Desire Under the Elms is raw, unsettling and gritty, writes Rob Edwards
Based on the 1924 American classic by Eugene O’Neill – also a 1956 movie starring Sophia Loren and Anthony Perkins – the flesh of the story hangs on the bones of Greek tragedy.
A long assault on the emotions, the play tours the sordid themes of adultery, incest and infanticide, set on a beautiful though barren New England farm in the nineteenth century.
The sophisticated, fluid set amplifies the claustrophobic regime of the callous and vigorously religious farmer-landowner, Ephraim Cabot (Finbar Lynch) who’s eldest sons dream of leaving the stone strewn land for California’s fields of gold.
During Ephraim’s long absence, his youngest son Eben (Morgan Watkins) steals his father’s gold to buy his brothers’ share of the land, convinced his deceased mother’s farm is his birth right.
As brothers Simeon and Peter (Mikel Murfi and Furgus O’Donnell) desert for California, Ephraim returns with a new young wife, Abbie Putnam (Denise Gough) whose designs on the farm enrage headstrong Eben.
In the midst of their scheming greed to control the land to which they each feel entitled, Eben and Abbie embark on a dangerous, passionate affair – their ill-fated desire beckoning their ruin.
Director Sean Holmes and set designer Ian MacNeil have caused this furious play to pour from the confines of the stage – the rooms of the farmhouse to morph and spin like the spiralling catastrophes of the plot, with hues of lighting that span from clandestine shadows to harsh silhouettes.
This latest production comprises intervals of steal strung, bottleneck guitar by Jason Baughan, accompanied by the percussive stamps of costumed dancers, choreographed to imitate the rural toil.
The heavy themes are relieved in the first act by the brothers’ hilarious comic exchanges and mastery of the New England drawl thanks to voice coach Penny Dyer.
“O’Neill wanted to tell stories about real people and real lives,” said actor Finbar Lynch, whose memory for Ephraim’s biting monologues is itself a triumph.
Human weakness, basic instinct and the corrupting power of land, the show is performed with a passion and intensity that has the cast weeping as they take their final bow.
Unmissable, leaving a wealth of burning questions, Desire Under the Elms is showing until November 10 at the Lyric Hammersmith. To book visit the Lyric’s website or call 020 8741 6850.