A major play by the pioneering American playwright Eugene O’Neill has opened at the Crucible, Sheffield, in a production directed by Sam Yates.
It’s about an elderly widower, Ephraim, who owns a farm and marries Abbie, a much younger woman, much to the chagrin of his three sons, especially Eben, the youngest, who is still mourning his mother, and feels that the farm should be his.
Abbie is instantly attracted to Eben, and the stage is set for a tragedy of intense and contradictory emotions. Matthew Kelly is Ephraim. In 2004 he won an Olivier Award for his portrayal of Lennie in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, a role he had played at the Crucible in 1987. Here he plays the older character with extraordinary presence and conviction.
Aoife Duffin and Michael Shea as Abbie and Eben bring a charged eroticism to their illicit entanglement.
Sule Rimi and Theo Ogundipe make an engaging pair as the brothers whose dream of going west in search of gold mirrors the national obsession of the 1850s when the play is set.
Along with a fiddler, Emma Darlow, the other characters act as a Greek chorus to the main action.
The production is unified by a breath-taking set designed by Chiara Stephenson: a looming, ever-changing, cloud-filled sky, and below, an earthy area which serves as both indoors and outdoors. When the stage itself opens for the lovers to descend into the room where Eben’s mother died, the Freudian dimension of O’Neill’s play is embodied in a scene of eerie resonance.
In suggesting parallels between family and work situations and the state of the nation, O’Neill set the template for later American dramatists such as Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, as well as more recent writers.
Among other things, the play explores the relationship between ownership and the American dream. It’s also prophetic in its depiction of a self-centred, powerful patriarch in the grip of a narrow form of religious belief who despises others for being weak and brings division to those he seeks to dominate. Desire Under the Elms is almost a hundred years old, but has a contemporary feel. This magnificent production runs until Saturday, October 14,