Desire Under the Elms

Eugene O'Neill
Citizens Theatre Company
Citizens Theatre Glasgow
(2007)

Publicity photo

The pitiful human desperation to hoard up riches and cling to them while rotting in a coffin is portrayed in Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms with an emotional intensity which grips an audience and sucks them into their seats.

The play, first published in 1924 and set in a farmhouse in 1850s New England, is performed at the Citizens Theatre under the direction of Jeremy Raison.

A father who would rather destroy his life's work than see it pass to an undeserving son; three sons who want it all for themselves and a new bride who would go to any length to make it hers: this plot is bursting with lust, passion and an overwhelming greed for material possessions.

As the eldest two sons depart for the golden fields of California, their father Ephraim brings home his new bride Abbie. His remaining son Eben cannot control his lust for her and the ensuing struggle is not just over their desire for each other but also over their fight for possession of the farm.

Abbie's infidelity results in the birth of Eben's son and it would seem that the only person blinded by the lies is Ephraim.

However, the coming of this son brings doubts, jealousy and Eben and Abbie's relationship falters. In a tragic attempt to put things right Abbie murders her son and for her sins is delivered to the Sheriff by her lover.

Performed in a fully-fledged two story house the play whisks you through the darker aspects of love and greed, biting your nails all the way. Unfortunately towards the end of the second half there are more than just a few too many "I love you" s leaving you fighting the temptation to check your watch. Then the broad Scots accent of the Sheriff cuts through the atmosphere just as your ears have accustomed themselves to the forced American dialects.

However, the performance is still hugely enjoyable, engrossing your full attention and giving you butterflies in your stomach. The acting sucks you in leaving you feeling like you are a gossiping villager in 1850s New England rather than a member of an audience.

The portrayal of the farm as "real purdy" and its ability to seduce everyone who lays eyes on it creates an almost harrowing tension as the play reveals that there is something rotten at its core. It raises questions about Ephriam, the man who built it, and the disturbing consequence that the farm, the fruits of his hard labour to provide for his family is the very thing which drives everyone away from him.

The production succeeds in overcoming the challenge of depicting the passing of a long period of time. A distinct change in mood is produced which leaves the characters at the beginning of the play as a distant memory of those on stage at the end. The cast offer some truly memorable performances and it is not hard to see why Desire Under the Elms is hailed as an American classic.

Playing until 17th November 2007

Reviewer: Alison Burns