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Desire Under The Elms

Published October 9, 2012

In 2011, Rob Ashford’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie took the Donmar Warehouse by storm, picking up a handful of Olivier Awards. Soon after, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, boasting a cast that included David Suchet and Laurie Metcalf, opened at the Apollo theatre. Now, it is the turn of the acclaimed playwright’s Desire Under The Elms, which opened at the Lyric Hammersmith last night.

Incorporating elements of Phaedra’s tale of sexual intrigue and betrayal, Desire Under The Elms tells the story of a family in New England, the mother of which has died, leaving behind a son, two step-sons and a husband to fight it out for the “purdy” family farm.

Simeon and Peter, a comic double act portrayed with more than a hint of playful vigour by Mikel Murfi and Fergus O’Donnell, are easily paid off, eager to start their search for gold in the west, but young Eben and his newly married father Ephraim aren’t so easily persuaded.

As Eben, Ephraim and his new bride Abbie come together in this household steeped in loathing, something begins to fill the air; you can feel it “droppin’ off the elums, climbin’ up the roof, sneakin’ down the chimney, pokin’ in the corners.”

This burning desire permeates Sean Holmes’ production, radiating from the skin of Morgan Watkins who, last seen at the Lyric Hammersmith in Holmes’ production of Saved, dominates its stage once again with a performance that sees him turn the internal feelings of his character inside out, revealing every ounce of Eben’s emotion, from the love for his mother to his brimming passion for Abbie.

Denise Gough requites in both her love and the power of her performance, her unwavering portrayal of the seductive temptress on a par with Watkins’ volatile Eben as she seamlessly shifts from manipulative step-mother to tender sweetheart. Finbar Lynch provides the antithesis with his convincing performance as the unloving father whose distinctly unlikeable character makes him impossible to pity despite being a victim of betrayal and humiliation.

Like broken sections of a doll’s house, Ian MacNeil’s multi-roomed set echoes the fractured family living within its walls, while James Farncombe uses light sparingly to reflect the dark and distressing tragedy that eventually comes to fall upon this lustful and avaricious household.