INTENSE: Abbie (Mbali Bloom) and Ephraim (Robin Smith) in Desire Under the Elms.

Desire Under the Elms

Director: Fred Abrahamse

Cast: Robin Smith, Marcel Meyer, Mbali Bloom

Venue: Baxter Golden Arrow Studio

Until: July 26

Rating: ***

MULTIPLE stagings and adaptations of this Eugene O’Neill classic from 1924 to the present day attest to the depth, power, and appeal of the work.

Fred Abrahamse, with his usual acumen for discerning topicality in the plot of a drama long established in theatre repertoire, has given Desire Under the Elms a South African setting and backdated it to the late 19th century, with the issue of competitive land ownership central to the piece.

Thus avid materialism fires the vis tragica of a play imbued with all the intensity of Greek tragedy, making it timeless and relevant to the current preoccupation with land claims in this country.

Passion is equally governed by Eros and Mammon in the taut three-hander as sexual desire contends with lust for possession of property.

The elderly patriarch Ephraim Cabot, of 1820 Settler stock, unknowingly vies with his youngest son Eben for the favours of his new wife Abbie, who in turn is driven by greed for the material benefits offered by her husband while coveting her stepson’s body. Eben is torn between his obsession with inheriting his father’s farm and carnal desire for Abbie…

This generates drama in which Sophocles meets Euripides as incest and infanticide make an unholy alliance. Tenderness is conspicuous by its absence, and self-interest emerges as the protagonists’ chief motivation in the toxic atmosphere of the farm.

References abound to the chill inhabiting the house, and the hardness which Ephraim prizes in people as well as objects.

Top marks go to Robin Smith for a mesmerising portrayal of Ephraim, who dominates the stage whenever he appears. A strong presence in this antipathetic character is essential to the credibility of Desire Under the Elms, and Smith delivers handsomely.

Marcel Meyer captures the complexity of Eben’s character, by turns bitter and passionate; his extended prefatory monologue is parti- cularly well delivered. Mbali Bloom, as Abbie, brings a heady mix of languor, passion and cold-blooded calculation to her persona, but the chemistry between her and Meyer is not wholly convincing.

Abrahamse’s skilfully devised set and evocative lighting, with Charl-Johan Lingenfelders soundscape, complete the sense of a polished and professional production.