Desire Under the Elms gets Mzansi reboot

2014-07-07 11:31

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It is perhaps not merely an accident of meaning that possession refers both to that which belongs to you and also to that which takes hold of you and makes you mad.

Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer’s adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s play Desire Under the Elms is relocated from the original 1850s America to 1890s Eastern Cape – during South Africa’s Gold Rush.

Drawing heavily on Greek tragedy, it is about an old man determined to cling to the farm he dragged life out of as a young man.

His son Eben wants to claim what he believes to be his birthright but, having dispatched his brothers to Joburg’s Gold Rush, he is flummoxed when his “Pa” (Robin Smith) returns home with a new young wife, Abbie (Mbali Bloom).

She, too, has designs on the farm, seeing it as a home, somewhere she can be her own mistress. As all three plot for their own gain, the coldness and loneliness in the house begins increasingly to take hold.

At the post-production discussion, the cast made the point that the word “mine” is a constant, the word that drives each of the characters to betrayal, violence and finally murder.

Though Abbie is a Xhosa bride, there is no discussion of colour. Rather this is a play that explores the damage done by greed and selfishness.

Part of the company’s manifesto, says Abrahamse, is to keep the classics alive. Hence the decision to choose a piece of theatre written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning American author back in 1924.

The company has recently revived Tennessee Williams’ Kingdom of Earth to great acclaim at the annual festival in the playwright’s name in America.

They are also well-known for their Shakespearian adaptations, my favourite being Richard III as a three-hander.

The rebooting of Desire Under the Elms into a South African context underlines the director’s assertion that great work is timelessly relevant because the human drama that plays out is familiar to all of us no matter where in time and place we find ourselves.

Desire Under the Elms is a cleverly adapted production with each of the three actors giving powerful emotional performances as they explore the chilling depths of an obsession with possession.

It goes to the Baxter Theatre from July 9 to 26.

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