Desire Under The Elms at the Lyric Hammersmith
After a mixed bag of reviews for his recent productions of Saved and Morning – The Lyric Hammersmith’s artistic director Sean Holmes brings us his version of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under The Elms.
Set in New England, America we are faced with a family of three sons left by their father Ephraim (Finbar Lynch) on a farm. Eben, (Morgan Watkins) as the half brother, believes the farm is his birthright as it originally belonged to his mother. Tired of working, the two other siblings, Simeon and Peter (Mikel Murfi/Fergus O’Donnell) openly dream of running to California for gold and Eben bribes his share of the farm for money to ensure they leave. Murfi and O’Donnell bring a Tweedle Dum, Tweedle Dee effect to the roles with strong-footed accents and cavemen instincts yet they bring diversity and a lightness too setting them apart.
Ephraim returns with new wife Abbie, played by an exquisite Denise Gough whose small frame is overpowered by her defined vocal quality and power. Here she meets an initially shy Eben. Watkin’s pacing and urgency is well balanced showing as she does an inability to express his uneducated self fully. He is intrigued by her and they begin an inquisitive love affair, conceiving a son. The town can smell the true father a mile off but Ephraim is blind to this. When he tells Eben that Abbie told him she’d bear him a son in order to get her right to the farm, Eben’s reaction to her betrayal is to wish his son dead. In grief, the true Greek nature of the tragedy unfolds and Abbie kills the infant.
With blinding performances from a strong cast, the most astonishing is Watkins’ and Gough’s portrayal of the forbidden relationship. Watkins’ finds it so difficult to look at her with his under-confident Eben that when he does, the room sparks alive. They are electric and feed off one another; you don’t know which one is going to move next. Gough is simply free in expression and delivery and truly steals the show.
The scenes are joined together by “The Musician” (Jason Baughan) with an acoustic guitar that is played over a rather dramatic, yet sparse set. Here we have boxed over bedrooms and living rooms that are wheeled around by the supernumeraries. While it doesn’t distract from the acting itself too much, the pauses from moving the large blocks of different rooms around feels like a simulation game is loading and the fluid nature of what the actors are doing is stilted. This doesn’t seem to match the style of the production yet it supports the acting in a way that makes it stand out all the more.
Penny Dyer is the voice and dialect coach and her work cannot be faulted. There isn’t one dropped vowel or hole in the consistency of accents or delivery. Holmes’ direction has truly honed in on intention and being affected by whomever you’re playing with on stage. Every player in every scene is reactive, including the ensemble who appear only at beginning of Act Two. O’Neill’s writing is of such a rare journey, and yet carried with such plausibility you are simply engrossed from the off. Tremendous performances with a continually experimental director leaves The Lyric strong in its growing reputation for fresh takes on revivals and classics.
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