Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Corn Exchange, 'Desire Under the Elms': Acres Away from Convention

Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin Theatre Festival
Oct 4-13

My review of Desire Under the Elms by Eugene O'Neill after the jump ...

In a play of bootstrap displays of macho behaviour there is a strikingly softer moment where farmer and father Ephraim Cabot, played here by the earthy Lalor Roddy, describes how he had made corn grow like magic between the stones in the field. As we look on the gravelly and gritty realism of The Corn Exchange's production - a far remove from the playful theatrics of their commedia dell'arte influence - we wonder if they similarly will be able to make something rise from the cracks.

This grey gem from American theatre is one of O'Neill's earlier and lesser known works, and you can see how it can attract an Irish production: the plot involves three resentful sons fantasising about seizing their family farm from their father. Director Annie Ryan knows that this could easily be an Irish story, and such is her interpretation as actors speak with swaggering Irish accents that incorporate certain Americanisms ("It's a durned purty farm", "Ye're a cussed fool!").

Beefy brothers Simeon and Peter (Luke Griffin and Peter Coonan) shovel their dinners, bellying with dreams of fields of gold in "Californi-a". They're tempted to go make it a reality when their stepbrother Eben (Fionn Walton) offers them a lot of money in exchange for their shares of the farm. For Eben, resentment is not a symptom of greed like his brothers. It's entitlement that drives him, as he believes the farm to have been the property of his dead mother. Inching closer to becoming the heir, his plan is curtailed when his father brings home a third wife (Janet Moran), who before long is turning her scarlet charm towards Eben himself.

Ryan pinpoints possible punchlines in this grim text, and allows them to be delivered effectively. But the transition from comedy to tragedy is a rough one, as none of the cast quite pull off the darker demands of this play. Walton has to chart a tortured soul in the figure of Eben but he seems to jump to emotional extremes rather than play the levels of those emotions. Moran, whose tremendous range we saw in the company's wonderful play Freefall a few years back, also can't get her nails into the complex mentality of her character. Roddy is the exception here, as he finds the gentle touches of the hardened farmer Ephraim.

This feels so distant from The Corn Exchange's usual aesthetic of sprightly movement and fluid stage images. Even the design elements feel incoherent, as lights and music are added to scenes with muddled meanings. The whole experience just kind of crumbles through your fingers.

What did everybody else think?

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