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A CurtainUp London London Review
Desire Under the Elms

if I could, in my dyin' hour, I'd set it afire an' watch it burn--this house an' every ear o' corn an' every tree down t' the last blade o' hay! I'd sit an' know it was all a-dying with me an' no one else'd ever own what was mine, what I'd made out o' nothin' with my own sweat 'n' blood!  'Ceptin' the cows. Them I'd turn free. — Ephraim Cabot
Desire Under the Elms
Morgan Watkins as Eben and Denise Gough as Abbie (Photo: Keith Pattison)
The British critic who spends half her life in New York sighed at the prospect of seeing Desire Under the Elms again but for me it was the first time, an introduction to another great play by Eugene O’Neill, in a powerful production from Sean Holmes. Finbar Lynch and Denise Gough are two actors that are always worth seeing but almost all the first act of this play is taken up, not with Lynch and Gough but with the three sons of Ephraim Cabot. Like many early American concerns, this play is about land and inheritance. It is set in the 1850s but written in 1924 and in Holmes’ production is full of atmosphere and a sense of the Connecticut farm worked from rocky soil where the stones had to be removed by hand to make the land arable.

We learn early on that Peter (Fergus O’Donnell) and Simeon (Mikel Murfi) have a different mother to their younger and taller step brother Eben (Morgan Watkins). Peter and Simeon are like a comic double act with their yokel, almost Hillbilly-type ways, and lack of sophistication. Most O’Neill unlike. Upon the death of Eben’s mother they are counting the days until their 76 year old father’s death and their inheritance of the farm. Knowing where the pot of money is hidden, Eben persuades his brothers to sell him their future interest in the farm for $300 apiece.

Ian MacNeil’s beautiful individual rooms with the cramped family space are situated in separate wooden boxes with one room downstairs and the set spinning to give two bedrooms with steep eaves upstairs. James Farncombe has lit boxes of colour at the side, gold turning to green and then pinky red to convey the wonderful skies O’Neill describes in the text. Morgan Watkins who plays Eben is so tall that he is always bent over upstairs in the cramped house. A high path leads out through the auditorium across the left front of the stalls for people to stride in and out because this is a time when they walked from farmstead to farmstead. A lone musician plays evocatively.

The tenor of the plays changes dramatically when Ephraim (Finbar Lynch) arrives home with a new wife, half his age, Abbie (Denise Gough). The minute those two are on stage, it lights up with dramatic tension. Ephraim in formal wear of winter coat and high crowned felt hat cuts a beautiful silhouette as director and lighting designer give us glimpses of people in the distance as outlines against the sky. Abbie is laying claim to the house as she visits each room and counts her new possessions with excitement and self congratulation. For the brothers the new wife is an extra barrier between them and their inheritance. It is natural that Eben and Abbie might be attracted to each other given Ephraim’s advanced age and their courtship is believable.

The second act opens with great celebration at the birth of a baby to Abbie with everyone presuming Ephraim has achieved this at 76. The clog dancers are enthusiastic and fun with plenty of rural atmospherics. Tragedy rapidly follows this celebration as Abbie has fallen in love with Eben and would do anything to hang onto him, a vivid contrast with her attitude on arrival at the farmstead. The ending of the play is interesting, touching and redemptive with fine performances from the three members of the Cabot family. I can see that the great O’Neill plays, apart from Mourning Becomes Electra, were written more than twenty years after this one but I am convinced now that I should like to see more of the early plays with a director’s eye for the detail that Sean Holmes undoubtedly has.

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Desire Under the Elms
Written by Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Sean Holmes

Starring: Finbar Lynch, Denise Gough, Morgan Watkins
With: Fergus O’Donnell, Mikel Murfi, Sandy Foster, Jason Baughan, Jim Creighton
Designed by Ian MacNeil
Lighting: James Farncombe
Sound: Christopher Shutt
Movement: Mikel Murfi
Running time: Two hours 20 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 8741 6850
Booking to 10th November 2012
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 8th October 2012 performance at the Lyric Hammersmith, Lyric Square, King Street, London W6 0QL(Tube: Hammersmith)

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