Wednesday 10 October 2012

Desire Under The Elms – Lyric Hammersmith

[or: on uncertainty]

I have virtually no idea what to make of Sean Holmes's new production is of Eugene O'Neill's 1924 play Desire Under the Elms. Or, more properly, what I made of it.

Let's work backwards:

Sean Holmes's production offers plenty of clues. It seems faithful to the intentions of the playwright. Hang on. Does it? I don't know the play at all. So what I suppose I mean is that I am happy to take on trust that this is the plot as O'Neill wrote it. That these are the lines that O'Neill wrote. The script here is thick with a vernacular poetry. It takes a while to get the ear attuned, but once you're in there is a strange beauty in the wild, rough tongue the characters speak. It's a dialectal variety of English that recalls rustic Cornish or Irish, perhaps. Unusual possessive pronouns (yourn, hirn, hern) stand out in a play that deals primarily with possession.

On the other hand, Holmes's designer, Ian McNeil (A Doll's House, An Inspector Calls), has created an imaginative, claustrophobic, half-German response to the set. Rather than the usual naturalistic cutaway homesteads we're used to in such domestic tragedies, here we have rooms rolled in as required from the gaping wings, with only half a backdrop standing in for the wide skies and wild vistas of the “New World”. These rooms are stark, suggestively coloured, and cramped; deftly conveying the claustrophobia that the characters still find trapping them in this vast landscape. And, like Hildegard Bechtler's set for Scenes From an Execution, it isn't afraid to be ugly. Strikingly so, in the case of the small kitchenette-on-wheels in which the piece opens.

However, while the set is pulling in one direction, and the script in several others, it feels as if the acting has the casting vote on what sort of a production this is. And, by-and-large, I'd say this is pretty much proper, full-on, in-the-moment, psychological, fourth wall, big-stage naturalism (I think the “big-stage” is a necessary qualification for all audible naturalism in big theatres: no one talks that loudly in real life). Actually, the costumes contribute to this impression, also taking their cue from what – to this non-expert on the period – looks like historical research.

And I suppose it was the performances I found hardest to tune in to. It doesn't help that the chief characteristic of the two main speakers for the first twenty minutes is jammering incomprehensibility. Simeon (Mikel Murfi – nice Equity name, btw (I assume Equity, apols if not)) and Peter (Fergus O’Donnell) are two bearded brothers of the fearsome patriarch Ephraim Cabot (Finbar Lynch) who has either married his way onto this farm or else, as he claims, built it up with his bare hands. Ephraim is the subject of some resentment from the two brothers who, we tortuously learn, have had it with his treatment and are a-heading out west to the California gold-rush. They are explaining this to their apparently half-witted half-brother Eben (Morgan Watkins), to whose mother this farm probably belonged before she married Ephraim and then died.

Turns out the reason for Ephraim's protracted absence is that he's found himself a new wife, Abbie (Denise Gough – doomed to find herself forever trapped psychosexual dramas in small rooms on big stages). He returns with her, the brothers jump ship and Ephraim Abbie and Eben are left to wrangle with fate on their own. Fate, almost too inevitably, takes the form of attraction between Eben and Abbie behind the father's back.

Or at least, that's the gist of it.

Thanks to a combination of what the script's up to, and what the actors are up to, we're unsure (perhaps too unsure, perhaps just unsure enough) whether Abbie has really fallen for Eben. At least, we're not sure until fatally late in the day.

However, the performances of these two central protagonists from Watkins and Gough is curiously blank and lacking in legible subtext. Eben is forthright, but close to being an actual village idiot, and here his emotional and physical responses are played furtively close to his chest, while Gough's Abbie is made of such hard stuff (and is also an actual idiot) that we can never guess her true feelings or motivation. It's a credible reading of the play, but one that makes a lot of extra hard work of it.

In contrast, with Finbar Lynch we have the advantage of believing from the get-go. Here is a man, still tough at 72, who is all plain speaking and stated intent. His is also the driving vocabulary of the piece. A man of simple contrasts, he is hard while his dead wife and her son Eben are soft. The land is hard. God is hard. In hardness there is reassurance, for softness, only contempt.

Given the whacking great sexual undertone of the whole play, little is made of this in Ephraim's case, and notably, when Abbie is seducing Eben, her talk is all of enlarging, growth and trees, and not hardness. It's a notable qualification given the direction in which contemporary slang has headed.

Also interesting is how little discernable heat seems to be given off by the apparently smitten Abbie and Eben. In theory they're smouldering at each other fit to burn, but, perhaps partly as a side-effect of the slightly cold, Teutonic design and lighting, you don't feel it radiating from the stage, exactly. Indeed, this feels like a distinctly wintry take on what might in other circumstances be a rather sultry play.

I found myself watching at a distance. Appreciating the interest of the play's setting, being reminded of Nick Cave's debut novel (Of course, if I'm going to take an interest in C19th American history, it's going to have to be hard-sold to me by an Australian goth. Of course.) Growing to be impressed by the dense poetry of the writing. And getting gradually into the narrative.

On the other hand, O'Neill asks us to take a lot on trust. And in the second half, the plotting has come a bit undone. Indeed, the denouement, the terrible revelation is rendered almost comic in its pathos. Matt Trueman rather brilliantly pointed out to me afterwards (and hopefully will in his review too, it's an excellent point) that by having us see a crucial act take play on stage, we go into that scene with more knowledge than Eben and as such can only see the bitter irony of his mistake, rather than sharing his not knowingness). Even so, The Thing That I Won't Spoiler is such a colossally stupid thing to do, that you hardly know where to look, or what to make of the characters.

It was at this point that I started wondering whether this really was a play about two characters with severe learning difficulties, and wondering how that would be as a dynamic. With Abbie somewhere lower on the IQ chart than that character Juliette Lewis plays in a couple of films who seems almost childlike in her lack of a grasp on things, but at the same time, dangerously, worryingly, precociously sexual.

At this point, one starts to wonder if that mightn't have been a more exciting production, which is unfair, since this is, I think, actually probably quite a good account of a play that I'm not sure I especially warmed to. On the other hand, perhaps a radically different production might have made the play's case more successfully to me.

Holmes doesn't add anything by way of an external reading or take on the piece – more this production just makes us think that bit harder about the play itself through the use of an unexpected aesthetic. Which is no bad thing in itself, except that I'm not sure it's a play that stands up to so much scrutiny. Again, perhaps this is Holmes's intent and I'm falling into the trap of wanting to have a rattling good time when there isn't one to be had.

I'm slightly less sure about the hermetically sealed acting within the context of the deconstructed staging. It's excellent too see further experimentation in mid-North Sea techniques and – post Morning – it confirms Holmes as a thoughtful, interesting theatre-maker willing to take risks. But in this instance, I'm not sure every risk fully pays off to the extent of creating an enjoyable evening in the theatre.

That said, I've been thinking about and puzzling about the production for a good deal longer already than a lot of productions that I have out-and-out enjoyed, so perhaps even this *judgement* is still a long way from definitive and still has to fully play-out.

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