Desire Under The Elms (Lyric Hammersmith)

Eugene O’Neill’s 1924 play ‘Desire Under The Elms’, set in New England and using themes of Greek tragedy to destroy a family, is given a strong revival here at the unusual Main House of the Lyric, Hammersmith (which is a rebuilt Victorian theatre within a 1970s concrete block).

Simeon and Peter run their father’s farm and lament their lot – but seem to lack the energy to do anything about it. Their half-brother Eben is treated worse than a slave and simmers with resentment at the way father and sons treated his mother. And when word comes that the old man has married for a third time, it is the first step in a life-changing situation for everyone. The older sons seek gold in California, while Eben is left to the mercy of Abbie, forty years younger than her new husband, sexually frustrated, bored, and horny as hell.

Not one character in this boiling pot is sympathetic. Abbie has no real feelings and swings between love and hate alarmingly, while heading blindly to her own destruction. Eben appears selfless but is dominated by the memory of his ‘Ma’ and chewed up with hatred of his ‘Pa’. Simeon and Peter, who are not seen in the second half of the play, are coarse farm-hands, with wild dreams. The father himself, the coldly religious Ephraim should gain our interest but he is selfish and hard to his ‘soft’ sons, and so deserves all he gets.

The Lyric’s set is simple, with three buildings moved around by costumed stage-hands, and a guitar player to set the musical mood. This ‘Desire’ sparkles, with Finbar Lynch’s Ephraim and Denise Gough’s Abbie being the stand out performances. Even after nearly ninety years this play doesn’t feel as if its message is dated. Recommended.

About Louise Penn

Writer, reviewer, fan. View all posts by Louise Penn

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