Desire Under the Elms
Performing any piece of work by Eugene O’ Neill has never been an endeavour for the fainthearted and in these times of increasingly tame popular taste, and a theatre community generally keen to please it, any attempt to stage something as harsh and intense as this tragic myth-inflected depiction of destructive family dynamics in mid 19th Century rural New England deserves to be applauded. In this case, it’s the Glasgow-based Citizens Company, with a three week run of “Desire Under the Elms” on their home turf at the city’s Gorbals-based theatre.O’Neill’s introduction to the original script includes a description of the Elms that crowd upon the farmstead, great breast-like boughs leaning full and heavy over the scene of this story’s bitter unfolding. Such a paradoxical symbol of rich promise and brooding threat is but merely suggested by the imprint of these trees on the stage curtain, but once this lifts up, the audience is treated to a set of more than compensating atmosphere.The painstakingly constructed timber-frame farmstead, complete with period fixtures and fittings, is a two-up two-down comprising four distinct interior spaces. These authentically rendered dramatic spaces variously draw us in as the characters move between them, but they also allow multiple points of attention offering a more complex observation of the predicament as it develops.The drama opens with the two oldest of three brothers, Simeon and Peter, played with the measured, slightly resigned resentment of John Chancer together with the verve and zest of John Arnold’s delightfully twangy younger sibling, and, given what comes later, provides a deceptively light flavour of authentic downhome backwoods America.The dialogue. ribald and robust, comes with breeches, boots, crooked smiles and spittle, but, as the early morning sun illuminates the long rolling fields of New England, and pre-milked cows low noisily down at the barn, even restless natives such as these are still able to appreciate their environment (”purdy, aint it”).But the rural idyll can barely cover the dark resentments that lie beneath. The harsher realities of this elemental landscape, scattered with huge stones left by the retreating ice sheet of pre-history have exacted a toll of labour from these men without due thanks or recognition from a ruthlessly driven father, Ephraim. This classic patriarch, played with brooding, enigmatic gravitas by Ian Hogg, and as unyielding as the rocks his sons have been forced to fashion into walls, has already worked two wives to death, and is soon to arrive with another. His is a Calvinism where unerring faith in a demanding God, hard work, aspiration and greed become inextricably woven, and represents the very essence of what a hundred and fifty years ago, America was only then becoming.Simeon and Peter resolve to go west. Their own greed and aspiration now draws them with dreams of gold to Californ-eye-ay (the open-vowelled endings of this period pronunciation is exuberantly articulated by both of them), leaving youngest brother Eban, clinging melancholically to the spirit of his dead mother, to hold fast in hope of inheriting the farm for himself.Ephraim arrives with Abbie his new wife, the two older brothers jape off into the sunset, and the rest, as they say, is Greek tragedy. Simeon and Peter may have thrown off the family yoke and embraced the possibility of new riches, but those twin themes, of freedom and greed, ably abetted by lust, have yet to play out among those that remain, and they do so with a grim, claustrophobic inevitability, and in the best tradition of the classics which O’Neill was inspired by.For Abbie, betrothal to Ephraim and arrival at the farm represents an escape into a better life and she clearly has no qualms about manipulating others in order to achieve this. For Ephraim, Abbie is deliverance from his own, self-confessed loneliness, although this seems largely a cage of his own making and one in which his almost sociopathic levels of single-mindedness seem destined to detain him.Eban, the remaining but equally flawed son, stands as both fulcrum and catalyst. In his own quest for aggrandizement, he has already stolen his father’s own savings to pay off his brothers, and he is now forced to confront the surly ambition of his new stepmother. A character already tortured by rancour and emotional contradiction is about to have his inner world even further complicated, and these agonising psychological conflicts are sensitively carried by Robbie Towns whose gangly frame and often submissive body language effectively convey the haunted air of a man left bewildered by the succession of his life’s events. The fundamental weakness of his personality, most evident in juxtaposition to his father, who pushes him about with arrogant ease, leaves me struggling initially to accept the readiness with which Abby falls for him, but the excellently observed scenes of titillation, seduction and ultimately full blown romance are good enough to offset my disbelief.This is due in no small measure to Rebecca Mcquillan’s deftly handled Abbie, who starts out with the expert craft of a woman who knows just what she wants and how to get it, but then, driven by another more visceral sort of greed and consumed by it’s accompanying emotion, veers into the bleakest outlands of her humanity. This is a mighty tough trip to navigate and Mcquillan, with a commendably strong performance, mostly succeeds in drawing you along.It is a credit to the company that so many of the play’s pivotal moments work so well. Even when the most difficult dramatic transitions present themselves, the players allow the expert narrative impetus to carry things through without over-reaching themselves. It is also fair to say that the production as a whole gets considerable help from set, light and sound in it’s evocation of an atmosphere suitable to the time, the place and the tale being told. Matilda Brown’s original score strikes a perfect chord of maudlin wistfulness, and the skilful deployment of lighting equipment in this creaking Victorian establishment cleverly suggests the diurnal rhythms of both moon and sun.Nevertheless, it is the acting, tight, loose, poised or fluid as the moment demands that carries this most challenging play, under the directorship of Jeremy Raison, into territory which is accessible but without any loss of power. With his own life a ghastly litany of trouble and strife reflecting the no-holds-barred all-out pursuit of the American dream, and always cynical of a burgeoning, expansionist individualism with it’s roots stretching back several generations, Eugene O’Neill consistently produced work pitting human beings against the demons of their own making, and in a clear historical context. Raison’s handling faithfully reproduces that context, But in an age when the consequences of unfettered greed and selfishness are being highlighted in ever increasing ways, the themes, the motifs and the dynamics resonate as pertinently as ever.