THEATRE REVIEW: Desire Under the Elms

By Phil Turner | 28/09/2017

THEATRE REVIEW: Desire Under the Elms
Matthew Kelly as Ephraim Cabot and Aoife Duffin as Abbie Putnam in Desire Under the Elms. Photo by Marc Brenner

THE Irish-American dramatist Eugene O’Neill is widely considered the father of modern American theatre. 

Born in New York in 1888, the son of an Irish immigrant actor, he was heavily influenced by the theatrical naturalism of leading European dramatists. 

They aimed to show human society and relations as they actually were, untainted by the sentimentality and melodrama that characterised theatre at that time.

O’Neill — played by Jack Nicholson in the 1981 film Reds — wanted to introduce to the US stage a theatre which stripped away the pretences of popular culture — shocking American society with plays about taboo subjects such as mixed-race relationships and prostitution.

Desire Under The Elms signifies an attempt by O’Neill to adapt plot elements and themes of Greek tragedy to a rural New England setting.

The trouble starts when the tough, Bible-bashing, twice-widowed Ephraim Cabot outrages his three sons by bringing home a new, 35-year-old bride. 

Cabot’s two elder sons — vividly played by Theo Ogundipe and Sule Rimi - decamp to the California gold-fields while the youngest, Eben, angrily remains to claim a farm that he believes was his mother’s rightful inheritance. 

But when Eben and his stepmother, Abbie, fall in love and produce a child that Cabot thinks to be his, the conflict over sex and property hots up.

In a superb cast, Aoife Duffin shines as Abbie, sexy and sensuous, but fatally fallible as emotions come to the boil.

Matthew Kelly, who starred here in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, gives another convincing performance as the gruff, shuffling old patriarch who is outwardly hard but displaying vulnerability as he contemplates a lonesome future.

Michael Shea is compelling as Eben, a mixture of emotions, switching from ecstasy to agony in a moment. 

The stage is dominated by a huge “purdy” sky above and dirt and the dust below in Chiara Stephenson's stunning design, beautifully lit by Jon Clark.

Director Sam Yates never puts a foot wrong in a production that does justice to O’Neill’s often neglected ambitions.

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