Desire Under the Elms, Lyric Hammersmith, London

It can be disconcerting to see an entire audience miss an unsubtle reference. As elderly Ephraim Cabot recited a series of outré similes for parts of his young bride’s body, the opening-night house laughed more and more freely at each one. No one seemed to register that astringent, Old Testament-loving Ephraim had resorted to the only language of love he knew by quoting the Song of Songs.

Eugene O’Neill’s play is less than 90 years old; in that time the Bible has evidently lost not only its religious but also its literary familiarity. On such evidence, O’Neill’s project with Desire Under The Elms would be doomed: like his Mourning Becomes Electra it recasts a Greek myth in an American setting, in this case the story of Phaedra’s near-incestuous love for Hippolytus on a small New England farm, as Ephraim’s bride Abbie falls instead for his youngest son Eben.

The story’s classical spine is, however, given numerous new limbs. Future title to the farm becomes a crucial motive: before Ephraim and Abbie even enter, we see Eben buying out his elder half-brothers’ expectations before they depart for California, and the final phase of the play hinges on whether the household’s new baby (fathered by Eben, unbeknown to Ephraim) will usurp Eben’s own prospects. Unlike Euripides’ version, stepmother and stepson face only arrest, albeit with the possibility of hanging for infanticide. And most crucially, the central love is both requited and consummated.

Denise Gough’s Abbie has a quiet, magnetic intensity, moving from seemingly blithe beginnings to a fatalistic distress. Finbar Lynch makes believable Ephraim’s claim that the loneliest periods of his life were his marriages; this is a man who cannot communicate. (He is also, no matter how well-preserved and vigorous Ephraim is supposed to be, plainly nothing like 76 years old.) Morgan Watkins is less compelling as Eben, as dedicated to his dead mother as Hippolytus is to the goddess Artemis.

The farmhouse itself becomes a character of sorts, the various rooms of Ian MacNeil’s set trucking on, off and around the stage in a ghostly architectural ballet. Sean Holmes’ production does not quite gel, with erratic accents and a wildly misjudged choric interpretive-dance sequence, but it is none the less an honourable addition to the British stage’s ongoing rediscovery of O’Neill.

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