Desire Under the Elms, Lyric Hammersmith

Originally written for Exeunt.

Property is a flimsy, fleeting, yet enduringly seductive object of desire. There is a bitter irony contained in an object over which lives are lost but which, as attested to by proverb, you can’t take with you. This empty basis on which possessions possess is laid startlingly bare by the Lyric Hammersmith’s new revival of Eugene O’Neill’s lust-laden study of ownership and desire, claustrophobically bound within the confines of a farm both built on and fought over with sweat.

The farm in question is under the disputed ownership of Ephraim, an aging but tough espouser of hard work whose joyless mantra is that “God’s hard, not easy”. As elucidated by O’Neill’s script in a laboured collection of expository scenes, this farm has become the subject of squabbling between his three sons, the youngest of whom, Eben, eventually buys out the stake of his two brothers. It is only when Ephraim returns, with pretty but fiercely acquisitive new wife Abbie in tow, that the friction between conflicting desires – material and physical – begins to emit sparks.

While O’Neill’s text is laden with words, lilting to a lazy rhythm that seems born from the slowly emanating heat of the earth, it is the visual landscape of the Lyric’s stage that seduces our attention. Ian MacNeil’s gorgeous design has realised the house at the centre of the characters’ alternately violent and petty disputes as a tellingly insubstantial structure, a plywood skeleton that dismantles into a series of self-contained domestic spaces. Its deliberately flimsy cladding and the abandonment of any pretence to cover its inner workings speak of both fragility and artificiality; the prize at which Ephraim, Eben and Abbie are all grasping is as creakingly hollow as it is ephemeral.

There also seems to be a recognition within Sean Holmes’ intelligent staging of the labour on which this coveted property has been founded, a labour that its “purdy” exterior would seek to elide. The wooden shells that house the various scenes are wheeled around the stage by figures in overalls, pointing to an act of labour by which the inhabitants’ comfort – or discomfort – is secured, an exposure of economic relations which in turn highlights the uneasy exchange that Denis Gough’s increasingly desperate Abbie is engaging in. As she initiates an inevitable affair with Eben, the acquisition at stake might shift from property to love, but payment must still be made.

Recurrent threads around these themes are insistently sewn by O’Neill and plucked at by Holmes’ production: the creeping threats of cold and poison, a “lonesome” chill that creeps through the house, the greedy, lingering promise of “gold in the sky”. The air of O’Neill’s world is as heavy with imagery as it is laced with desire – too heavy, it often seems, for his narrative to support. The melodramatic tint of the unfolding drama allows Gough to tear herself apart in a blistering, ferocious performance, but something in this strange, overburdened play seems to be torn along with her.

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