BWW Reviews: Complex DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS Needs Deeper Interrogation
DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS first premiered in 1924, to some controversy. A searing meditation on passion, in which playwright Eugene O'Neill aimed to distil the principles of Greek tragedy into the then-contemporary American theatre, the censors of the time could face neither the suggestion of a relationship that they considered to be incestuous nor the references to infanticide that are woven into the plot's climax - at least not without the framework of the classics upon which O'Neill based his work. It would be more than three decades before the play would be adapted for film, where it tiptoed around those same issues as discretely as possible without eliminating them entirely, resulting in a decidedly mixed critical reaction. Skip forward another six decades and DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS finds itself the subject of a new adaptation and production under the banner of Abrahamse and Meyer Productions, in association with the National Arts Festival, where the production premiered, and the Baxter Theatre Centre, where it transferred following the completion of its run in Grahamstown. With the action transferred from 1840s New England to the Eastern Cape of the 1890s, Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer attempt to amplify the resonance that O'Neill's classic play has for the South African theatre audiences of today.
The plot of both versions of the play retains the same essential characteristics. Ephraim Cabot, a stubborn and cold farmer who speaks with a tongue that is obsessed with puritanical Christian values, leaves his three sons behind on his farm while he undertakes a pilgrimage, during which he finds himself a new wife, Abbie Putnam. In the meantime, his youngest son, Eben, buys his brothers' shares of the farm in an attempt to re-establish his ownership of the land, which originally belonged to his deceased mother but now seems to be wrapped up in whatever entailment suits his father's whim. With the brothers having left in search of their fortunes, Eben waits to receive Ephraim and Abbie on the farm. When they arrive, the initial conflict between Eben and Abbie morphs into obsession and then desire, the fulfilment of which sets in motion the tragedy that will play out by the time the play ends. Besides the altered setting, the other key changes in the Abrahamse-Meyer adaptation are the elimination of the supporting characters and the choice to make Abbie a Xhosa woman.
The adaptation of non-African texts into an African context a particular fascination of mine. As a student at the University of Cape Town, I remember asking a question about this idea in a guest lecture by Heinrich Reisenhofer, who had enjoyed at great deal of success with SUIP! at the time. Reisenhofer's opinion was that there was no space for exploring the connection between international texts and local contexts and that the focus of contemporary South African theatre should be placed exclusively on telling South African stories. Being rather wet behind the ears, I was awed into silence, although I never really bought into that rather dogmatic thesis. I felt vindicated when I saw MIES JULIE at the Baxter two years ago, hard proof if there ever could be any that a re-interrogation of a classic text could reveal as much about South Africa as a locally born story can. It is true that this strategy sometimes does not work - the recent South African touring production of BLOOD BROTHERS never quite managed to reconcile our socio-political history with the one presented in Willy Russell's original version - but the point is that the legitimacy of the technique lies in its handling, not in the validity of the approach itself.
This anecdote might seem like a digression, but it serves as the context within which my main concerns about this adaptation of DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS is framed. The idea to use O'Neill's play as the springboard for a story that has local resonance seems completely justified to me. It is a story, at its core, that deals with two deeply relevant South African topics: otherness and the ownership of land.
The issue of otherness lies not only in Abbie's status as an outsider, although that is the most obvious realisation of the theme and one that is magnified in the Abrahamse-Meyer adaptation by changing the character's ethnicity, as it was when the character was reimagined as an Italian immigrant when the role was played by Sophia Loren in the film adaptation. Questions left unanswered by this adaptation concern why there is no reaction to Abbie's ethnicity or any real exploration (beyond a cursory mention about her being orphaned) of how a Xhosa woman at that time came to be almost completely anglicised.
Eben himself is also characterised as different to the men that surround him, "soft like his Ma" as opposed to the hardness of his brothers and father. Abbie does point out, however, that he can be just as hard as Ephraim, thus it is actually his ability to shift between opposing modes of masculinity that others him. His ability to sense the ancestral spirit of his mother, to whom he addresses a lengthy monologue at the opening of the piece, constructed from a dialogue between three brothers in the original play, also sets him apart from those around him. The sense of ancestors being present can work within a South African context, but it is a little jarring here. Possibly because of Eben's whiteness, it feels a little more PSYCHO than South African.
The competition between all of these layers of otherness within the narrative somewhat dilutes the ideas around land ownership in DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS. To rework the narrative in this way, but to retain a nineteenth century setting complicates the audience's suspension of disbelief as the plot plays itself out. With a Xhosa Abbie, the theme might resonate better in a contemporary setting: her adoption of colonial mannerisms could be taken as a given circumstance, while the Natives Land Act of 1913 and the topical issue of land restitution would feed into the narrative more cohesively. Alternatively, were the 1890s setting considered an indispensible part of this adaptation, it might have been more feasible to transform Eben's unseen mother into Ephraim's Xhosa wife or mistress instead: not only would the racial dynamics that play into land ownership snap into focus more clearly, the connection between Eben and his mother's spirit might also be clarified. Whichever way one looks at it, it is the adaptation of DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS that needs deeper interrogation than any other aspect of the production itself.
The performances by the three actors in the piece vary, with some beautiful moments of connection made in the scenes that take place between Eben (who is played by Meyer) and Abbie (Mbali Bloom). In her early scenes opposite Robin Smith as Ephraim, Bloom pitches the energy of her character a little too high, erasing the layers of subtext that need to be present for the audience to buy into the narrative at the top of the play. Meyer manages to negotiate the delivery of the lyrical text best, but was not quite convincing as a boytjie from rural the Eastern Cape. Smith seemed out of place in his role; in fact, it seemed as if he was acting another character, from a different play, in a different style. His reading of the role as little more than a bumbling cuckold lacked any of the hardness that the character must possess even as a mere function of the plot and was completely dislocated from the drama of the play.
The physical production of DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS is beautiful, with Abrahamse having really exceeded himself in creating a set design that reflects the style of lyrical realism that characterises the piece. His lighting complements his design and goes a long way to establishing the mood of the play, as does the marvellously understated score crafted for the piece by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder. Meyer's costumes are also beautifully designed, featuring beautiful detail in the stitching that beautifully reflects the period of the piece.
DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS is a very complex and interesting piece, not least because of the wide range of theatrical traditions that inform it. O'Neill embraced both the stark nature of classical tragedy as well as the more modern theatrical traditions through which he filtered the legend of Theseus, Phaedra and Hippolytus. Abrahamse and Meyer's intentions to discover a South African theatrical vocabulary through which that myth and O'Neill's play can be unpacked is a noble one, but one that feels as though it has not yet found its voice. I hope that such an unearthing may still come to pass.
DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS premiered at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown on 3 July 2014, before transferring to the Baxter Theatre's Golden Arrow Studio on 9 July for a run through 26 July.