Desire Under the Elms

The Crucible
- , 2017

Tickets cost £15 - £29

Family, tragedy, passion and fate collide against a spellbinding set. Our review...

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Desire Under the Elms Archived

Eugene O’Neill is often hailed as one of America’s greatest playwrights. Drawing inspiration from Greek tragedy, he was fascinated by the themes of family, fate and struggle, and these are to be found running right through the heart of his 1924 play, Desire Under The Elms.

The plot is set in rural New England, in the middle of the Gold Rush frenzy that took hold of America in the mid-19th century. Old, hardened farmer Ephraim has three sons – Simeon and Peter from his first marriage, and Eben with his late second wife.

His eldest offspring, weary of back-breaking farm work, decide to try their luck searching for gold in California. Before the two brothers leave, Eben persuades them to accept a payout in exchange for their inheritance rights, leaving him as the sole heir of the farm. Eben’s inheritance is threatened however when Ephraim brings home a new wife, the much younger Abbie. After a frosty first meet, Abbie and Eben end up engaging in an affair, with tragic consequences.

The cast list for Desire Under The Elms is a short one, offering just five significant parts, and in this line-up, each comfortably holds their own. Sule Rimi as Simeon and Theo Ogundipe as Peter steal the first few scenes with their boisterous exchanges and make room for a few laughs before the play takes its darker turns. Aoife Duffin as Abbie is brash, sly, needy, and loving all at once, and she does well in keeping the audience second guessing her true motivations. Michael Shea puts in a mature performance as Eben, and gives his character’s anger and vulnerability a manic edge. Matthew Kelly also makes for an excellent Ephraim, adept in showing the two sides of the irritable old farmer, a robust and rugged alpha male who also fears being alone.

A standout aspect of this interpretation is undoubtedly the staging, with set design by Chiara Stephenson and lighting by Jon Clark. The Crucible stage is transformed by Stephenson’s set, to reflect the simple and bleak nature of the family’s existence but also the beauty of the countryside. Expect to find an expanse of sky overhead, brought to life with video projections of rolling clouds that turn dark and ominous at opportune moments. At the back of the stage, sheaves of corn stand upright, bending and rustling as characters move through them. Dirt and dust lie all over the floor to be scrabbled in, ploughed, kicked and swept, and to top it off there’s a working campfire and water pump. Jon Clark’s lighting design adds a great deal of atmosphere, bathing the scene in everything from blue-tinted moonlight to dewy, golden sunrises.

Desire Under The Elms is not the easiest of plays to follow, in part due to the distinctive accents, which take a couple of scenes to adjust to. However, a strong cast and creative staging breathe new life into the dark struggles at its heart, which are passionately played out down in the dirt and under that great big sky.

Photo by Marc Brenner.

Written by Emma Liasides; September 29, 2017