9 November 2012

Desire Under the Elms at the Lyric Hammersmith

It is little over a year since I made a conscious connection to the works of playwright Eugene O'Neill with a faultless production of Anna Christie at the Donmar Warehouse. I have taken every opportunity since then to see more of his works and Desire Under the Elms at the Lyric, Hammersmith was the fourth play in the fourth theatre.

This was my first visit to the Lyric, despite its convenient location being easily reachable from Richmond by tube and bus. It's always nice to have a choice of routes in case one is disrupted for some reason.

The Lyric impressed me as I had a beer and a snack pre-theatre. The waiting areas are large, open and fresh. The refurbishment and redecoration are recent and stylish. It reminded me of the Lost Theatre that has also been refreshed recently.

Soaking up the modern ambiance only increases the shock of going in to the theatre. Nothing prepares you for the Victorian theatre entombed in a modern building.

I must admit that I would have much preferred a modern theatre that matched the modern spaces outside.

I am not against history but we have too many Victorian theatres that are too similar to each other to be interesting individually and which do not provide modern facilities such as leg-room and a guaranteed view over the heads in front.

I got over the second potential problem in the usual way, by securing a seat in the front row of the circle.

Desire Under the Elms is set on a small farm in the American Mid-West. Life is hard but reasonable. Living on the farm are the aged father who built it, his two late-twenties sons from his first marriage and his late-teens son from his second marriage. Both wives are now dead.

The future of the farm is a hot topic of discussion as the old man can only pass it on to one of them. This future is thrown in to turmoil when the father returns with his third bride and new natural heir to the farm.

The two elder sons leave to seek their fortunes in California leaving just the old man, his young bride and his youngest son.

The play turns sharply in this scene where the bride makes it abundantly clear that she is interested in the son. He is young and, frankly, has no chance and they are soon embroiled in an affair that everybody in the nearby village is aware of but which the old man is oblivious too.

There is a nice scene when a party is held to celebrate the arrival of a baby and the villagers do a strange but wonderful dance that they brought with them from somewhere in Europe.

The play speeds towards its expected gloomy end though which end and how gloomy is not apparent until you get there.

The play ends with a passing comment about the beauty of the farm. And that is as it should be as the farm is the central character in the play. Its history and future are what drive the story and lead the characters to do what they do.

The production is rather neat. Most of the scenes take place in various rooms in the house, the kitchen, parlour and two bedrooms, and these are wheeled on and off the stage as if they too were actors, reinforcing the idea of the farm as a character in the story.

The acting is pretty good too though the youngest son did have a tendency to shout when that was not necessary or appropriate. There was nothing to complain about in the other two main roles. The old man was proud and domineering and his new wife was sultry and scheming.

There was a lot to admire in this production and in the play itself. It made for an emotional and enthralling evening, which is what I hoped it would do.

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