Desire Under the Elms

Nineteenth-century New England comes closer to home in Corn Exchange’s austerely beautiful production of Eugene O’Neill’s tragedy

Desire Under the Elms

Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin


No matter how many people suffer in Greek tragedy, we can usually decide on a single tragic hero: Oedipus, blind and raging; Phaedra undone by her own hand; Medea avenged and inhuman.

But who is the tragic figure in Eugene O’Neill’s play, indebted to the ancients, from 1926? Is it Eben (the assured Fionn Walton), youngest son of a New England farmer’s second marriage, who will do anything to reclaim a property he believes is his? Or his easily duped brothers, Simeon and Peter, paid off to forsake their inheritance when gold rush in “Californ-i-yay” looks more promising? Or is it their father Ephraim (Lalor Roddy), a vain, embittered coot, who combines his narcissism with Old Testament severity?

Perhaps the answer is best expressed by Janet Moran’s bright-eyed Abbie, the 35-year-old wife whom Ephraim brings home one day, who becomes queen of all she surveys: “It’s purty! I can’t b’lieve it’s r’ally mine.” You hear that last word repeated throughout O’Neill’s play, a study in venality, property and sexuality, which is really the tragedy of the possessive pronoun: Oh, my.

Taking possession of O’Neill’s play is no easier task. Set in 1850 and written with stifling details of imagery and voice, where elm trees hang over this motherless space with “a sinister maternity” and characters speak in hermetically-sealed phonetics (“Ye’re aimin’ t’ swaller up everythin’ an’ make it your’n,” Eben tells Abbie, who intends to swaller him with a sinister maternity). Sophocles wrote indifferent to Freud’s opinion but O’Neill writes in the shadow of both, leaving little to the imagination and less to interpretation.

Corn Exchange's solution is artful, austerely beautiful and appropriately severe. Director Annie Ryan strips everything back: now, there are no trees, just stripped slats of wood on a barren terrain; as clear a statement on the enduring worth of property as you will encounter. Maree Kearns's set makes no distinction between interior or exterior spaces at all. An abstract painted grey horizon reflects Sinead Wallace's beautiful lights in golden dawns and fateful twilights and, pointedly, no character ever seems quite at home.

The boldest conceit is in voice, early established by almost unrecognisable Luke Griffin and Peter Coonan as the gawping brothers, with strong Ulster accents. This seems less like a political comment than a dramaturgical fix: bringing them unfussily closer to home.

The tragedy itself remains dirt simple, achieved with perfunctory shifts in character and plot. But Ryan manoeuvres through it, against Mel Mercier's guiding music, with a supple sense of physicality: Coonan and Griffin retreat from Fionn Walton's contract as though it were a dangerous animal, Janet Moran stretches out in insolent seduction, and Lalor Roddy skitters around in both merriment and aggression. These are striking new motions through age-old patterns, the embodiment of human will contorted by fate.

Most resonantly, it creates a startling meditation on inheritance, the possessions and histories, needs and disorders, that are handed down generational lines. In that endless cycle of hope and despair, desires still seem eternally new, just as tragedy exposes its much deeper roots.

Ends October 13