There’s an awful lot of desire under these particular elms. Desire in the carnal sense of course, but also desire for property, desire for parenthood, desire to move to California and start a better life, desire for a happy ending. Which, if you’re at all familiar with Eugene O’Neill’s work, is something you know isn’t going to happen.
Sam Yates’ revival of O’Neill’s classic tragedy is a bit of a slow-burner – it takes a while to adjust to the broad New England accents and little peculiarities of O’Neill’s dialogue, but even in the early stages, it’s impossible not to be drawn into the atmosphere. Chiara Stephenson’s design is almost immersive, transforming the Crucible’s main stage into a dusty New England farm – there’s rows of corn swaying, dust and dirt all across the floor and, most impressively, thanks to ingenious lighting from Jon Clark, a moonlit, cloudy sky literally hanging over the stage.
Desire Under The Elms is a simple story, filled with complex characters. A twice-widowed farmer, Ephraim, brings home a much younger bride, Abbie, and almost immediately a battle for ownership of the farm begins between the couple and Ephraim’s son, Eben. Almost inevitably, an affair develops between Abbie and Eben, and you find yourself questioning the motivations of the characters – is this an affair driven by love and lust on Abbie’s side, or are there more material concerns? Is Eben channelling the grief over his dead mother and the hatred he feels towards his father? In effect, it’s a simple three-hander, but here given an epic quality by Yates’ almost cinematic direction.
The performances are strong too – as soon as Matthew Kelly’s Ephraim and Aiofe Duffin’s Abbie turn up, it’s like a blue touchpaper has been lit. The contrast between Kelly’s huge, ursine-like presence, complete with long grey hair and large silver beard, and Duffin’s tiny frame is almost comical, yet Duffin still imbues Abbie with a dangerous fire. It’s an extraordinary performance, as she slowly begins to submit to a mania that engulfs her, and one that’s only going to add to the growing reputation that Duffin’s gathering as one of the most exciting young performers around.
Kelly too is obviously having the time of his life. Menacing one minute, pathetic and shuffling the next, he’s like an old-time preacher delivering O’Neill’s monologues. When you see him shaking his walking stick, or in one scene, overturning a table in a fit of rage, it’s clear that Kelly’s Light Entertainment days are now long behind him. When next to these two powerful performances, Michael Shea’s Eben seems rather quiet and understated, but he does an impressive job at portraying his character’s inner demons and his chemistry with Duffin is undeniable. There’s also some decent support from Theo Ogundipe and Sule Rimi as Eben’s half-brothers with dreams of heading west to “Cali-forn-aye-eh” to cash in on the gold rush.
It’s not a perfect production – the infamously tragic act that occurs in the second half is portrayed in a strangely low-key way, thus robbing the climax of the power that it should possess. Also, over the course of two and a half hours, some of the accents tend to wobble a bit. Yet there’s a rare power running through Yates’ revival, and a set of performances that leave one utterly drained by its conclusion.
Desire Under The Elms is at the Crucible, Sheffield, until October 14th. For more details, click here.