After years of semi-neglect, the works of Eugene O'Neill have been embraced by London theatres, with the Donmar's 'Anna Christie', the West End's 'Long Day's Journey into Night' and a whole host of excellent fringe revivals repopulating the capital's stages with the great American dramatist's wryly despairing depictions of disintegrating family life.
Latest to the fray is this revival of his 1924 Greek tragedy-inspired 'Desire Under the Elms', given a slightly peculiar production from Lyric boss Sean Holmes.
The place is rural Maine, 1850, and the first people we encounter are hick brothers Simeon (Mikel Murfi) and Peter (Fergus O'Donnell) who are – with a great amount of whoopin', hollerin' and slappin' of thighs – contemplating heading west to join the Gold Rush.
After a faintly baffling first 20 minutes they finally do head west, leaving their intense half-brother Eben (Morgan Watkins), tough, elderly father Ephraim (Finbar Lynch) and his ravishing young bride Abbie (Denise Gough) to engage in a battle for possession of the family farm.
The desire of the play's title is not so much lust – though there is that – but desire to belong. And the production's ultimate success lies in some ferociously good acting. As Abbie, Gough is magnetic: sexy, raging, vulnerable and out of her depth as she falls under the strange spell of the farm, taking Eben for a lover and a son. And Lynch is superb, a terrifying, elemental avatar of the stony Maine soil whose diminutive frame and strange, rambling utterances only partly conceal the terrible violence within him.
As a director, Holmes has an overtly European style, which doesn't always suit this most American of playwrights. The production is too funny, and the stylised farmstead – a series of mobile boxes, with a projection screen representing the sky – sometimes feels obstructive to the earthy vistas of O'Neill's imagination.
But later on Holmes conjures up some wonderfully eerie tableaux within the frames of the set: tiny Abbie wrapping herself around towering Eden in the near dark; a horribly cramped party in the kitchen. And lighting designer James Farncombe does an absolutely phenomenal job, summoning all shades of dusk and dawn.