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Desire Under the Elms

Playwright: Eugene O’Neill

Presented in association with the National Arts Festival and the Baxter Theatre Centre

Direction /Set & Lighting Design: Fred Abrahamse

Costume Design: Marcel Meyer

Soundscape: Charl-Johan Lingenfelder

Photography: Fiona MacPherson, Pat Bromilow-Downing

Cast: Robin Smith, Mbali Bloom, Marcel Meyer

Venue/s: National Arts Festival [June 2014], Baxter Studio [July/August 2014], Provincetown Theatre [September 2016], Triad Stage, Greensboro [September/October 2016] Mendel Theatre, Philadelphia presented as the opening production of EgoPo Classic Theatre’s South African Season [October 2018]

About: Eugene O’Neill had a life-long obsession and interest in South Africa, having heard fantastical stories about the country from his father’s publicist, who had worked as journalist in South Africa during the Boer War. During the early 1900s a young O’Neill set sail to start a new life in South Africa but was refused entry at the port in Durban because he did not have sufficient funds to allow him entry into the country. Throughout his career he would incorporate South African characters and narratives into plays and stories.


Taking O’Neill’s fascination with South Africa as inspiration, this production transposes the original New England setting to the Eastern Cape in the 1890s where Ephraim Cabot (played by veteran actor Robin Smith), a direct descendant of the 1820 Settlers, returns to the family farm with his new Xhosa bride, Abbie Putnam (Mbali Bloom). This sets the stage for a dynamic power struggle between Cabot’s son, Eben (Marcel Meyer) and Abbie concerning ownership of the land.


What the Press Said:

“Also superb were all three principals in the stripped-down, inventive version of Desire Under the Elms directed by Fred Abrahamse. Relocated to a farm in South Africa in the 1890s, Mr. Abrahamse’s adaptation focused less on the faintly melodramatic love-triangle plot to recast the play as a fierce fight for possession of the land. Robin Smith bristled with menace as the wily Ephraim Cabot, who brings home a new wife, Abbie (Mbali Bloom), who soon becomes pregnant by Ephraim’s son, Eben (Marcel Meyer), with tragic consequences. Both Ms. Bloom and Mr. Meyer were entrancing in their dangerous dance of seduction, with Ms. Bloom’s race — she’s supposed to be from the Xhosa tribe — adding a grim new layer of meaning. Coming from a people dispossessed of much of their land through a century of wars with European settlers, Abbie’s dependence on her brute of a husband, and her willingness to sacrifice her child in order (she thinks) to keep the love of Eben, resounds with anguished new feeling.  Emerging from the darkness of O’Neill’s tragedy into the crisp sun of a fine Cape Cod day was disorienting, but in the best possible way.”  – Charles Isherwood THE NEW YORK TIMES

“Fred Abrahamse’s direction of this production was a combination of stunningly strong visuals and powerhouse acting, especially from Meyer and Bloom…Abrahamse’s production felt Shakespearean in its scale. After all, O’Neill was often referred to as “America’s Shakespeare.” Meyer’s Eben was part brooding Hamlet, and part sensitive Lennie Small from Of Mice and Men, while Bloom’s Abbie was part cunning Lady Macbeth and part tormented Ophelia. Smith’s Ephriam was a clear reference to Falstaff, which emphasized the character’s blustering bravado and foolish nature. Performed without an intermission, this production grabbed you by the collar and did not let go, allowing the emotional arc to complete in a very satisfying manner. This was another of my favourite productions of the entire festival. – HUFFINGTON POST

“What Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer have sought to do is further the work of O’Neill by bringing the classical piece into a somewhat contemporary 19th century Southern African context. On that front they have succeeded superbly…Aided by powerful performances by Mbali Bloom, Robin Smith, and Marcel Meyer, Desire under the Elms is one not to be missed …” CUE ONLINE


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.” CITY PRESS

“a production that positively sizzles with lust, greed and a deep-seated sense of entitlement. While Abrahamse’s revolving compact set and Meyer’s striking period costumes all aesthetically contribute to the play’s success, it is the acting and direction that will give Desire Under the Elms its deserved longevity…a powerful and high-strung theatrical encounter.” SUNDAY INDEPENDENT

“Transforming a renowned but dusty old classic into a flavourful, relevant and gripping production without detracting from the original is a risky undertaking, and Abrahamse’s success in this regard is that much more powerful as a result…Sharing an undeniable chemistry on stage, the trio of actors – Robin Smith, Marcel Meyer and Mbali Bloom – bring the play to life with a palpable vigour and a wonderful synergy – testament to Abrahamse’s skill as a director…Meyer proves incredibly watchable in this role, his performance consistently nuanced and extremely unsettling, tragic and beautiful…Sometimes subtle and sometimes explosive, Desire under the Elms is an unpretentious interrogation of the human condition, seamlessly tailored to fit a South African heritage. Inescapably thought-provoking and extremely enjoyable.” WHATS ON IN CAPE TOWN

“The adaptation to a South African landscape has great potential…the costumes are exquisitely designed…the staging is innovative and allows events to take place without complex transitions. The slated walls of the bedrooms lend a voyeuristic element…a timeless classic. Interpreted for a South African audience it acquired new relevance and is a devastating critique of the destructive potential of desire.” CAPE TIMES

“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.” BROADWAY WORLD

“Abrahamse and Meyer continue their fine, fine form of late with this dazzling production” NEXT 48 HOURS

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