Eugene O’Neill’s Desire under the Elms at the Sheffield Crucible

Eugene O’Neill’s Desire under the Elms is a towering, craggy masterpiece of 20th century theatre.  The play draws on themes from Greek drama, power (patriarchal and sexual), retribution and dynastic ties, but nevertheless remains quintessentially American.  This is because the elemental forces involved relate so well to the settlers there and their obsession with property, veneration of virility and religious fervour. Conflicts arise within the family:  here principally the consequence of a new bride’s passion (or lust?) for her husband’s son; but also from the inherent yearning in the younger generations to break free from the father’s tyranny by engaging in dreams of California and gold. The struggles are with nature within humans, but also external to them: the need to generate offspring, but also to tame the stony landscape and render it fruitful.

And it is indeed nature which dominates the visual and aural aspects of the magnificent production of the play at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. At the rear of the stage a cornfield; in front a few props indicate a rough, gloomy and austere farmstead; and above a huge sky, changing colours to reflect the vicissitudes of emotions below. In the background one hears the chirping of birds, the lowing of cattle, and the trickling of water. High praise then for designer Chiara Stephenson, Video Designer Luke Halls, Sound Designer Nick Greenhill, as well as for Alex Baranowksi whose discreet but evocative music underpinned the action.

Sam Yates, the director, set exactly the right mood for the piece, allowing the gritty but poetic text to cast its spell, but also using movement and gesture to reinforce the emotional content. Thus while the sprightly activity of members of the local community might have attempted to lighten the atmosphere with music and dance, we were dragged back to the drama by the intense deportment of the central characters, father, wife and son. Particularly impressive was the intrigue of the lovers, picked out by light against a murky background, as in an expressionist German silent movie.

Michael Shea hardly out of drama school gave an astonishingly assured, visceral performance as the vulnerable but headstrong son Eben. He was ably matched by Aofie Duffin who was successful not only in seducing him but also in maintaining the ambiguity about her motives for doing so. As Ephraim, Matthew Kelly was appropriately tyrannical and unyielding in his insistence on the “hardness” of the male gender.

An outstanding evening of epic drama, all too rare an experience in these days of limited public financial support for theatres.