By Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Laurie Sansom
Company: Royal and Derngate Northampton
Venue: Cottesloe Theatre
Date: Thursday 27th May 2010
We expect O’Neill’s work to be dark and full of suffering, and today’s piece hit the mark perfectly. It had the look and feel of an early work (haven’t read the program notes yet) with a bit more humour and less detail and complexity in the relationships, but not enough to reduce our enjoyment.
The set was nice and simple. A slightly raised square platform had torn strips of earth and floorboard across it, to represent the two locations. A tree trunk stood centre back, with stumps of branches twisted in the same direction, indicating a strong prevailing wind. At the back were silhouettes of hills in the distance, and the sky above took on different colours to suit the time and the mood. For the scenes on top of the hill, the cast usually brought on pieces of a fence which they slotted into position. For the interior scenes, they brought on a table (left of centre), a comfy chair (front right), a writing bureau (back right) and chairs and a footstool. For the final scene on the hilltop, the cast simply turned the furniture over, suggesting the final destruction of the farm, and of the remaining characters’ dreams.
The story involved two brothers, Andy and Robert, both in love with the same girl, Ruth. They’ve grown up together in a small farming community in Connecticut, with Andy being the farming type, destined to take over the farm from his father one day, and Robert being the sickly bookworm, who’s developed into a healthier young man, and who now wants to go to sea with Uncle Dick to travel and see the world, as well as learning to be ship’s officer.
The play opens the evening before Robert is due to leave. The two brothers stood on the stage, either side of the tree, as the rest of the cast brought on the fence posts and props. With the brothers staying still, the others set up the fence, then gave each brother their prop (a hoe and a book, since you ask) and after standing for a moment lining each side of the stage, the others left and the action began. This type of staging can slow things down an awful lot, but in this case it was OK, and paid one major dividend towards the end (more on that story later).
The brothers talk about many things, including their relationship, their father’s farm, how folk will miss Robert, etc. Robert is going to tell his brother something, but backs out at the last minute. As Andy heads off to wash up for dinner, Ruth arrives, wanting to know why Robert wants to leave his family and friends. His first reason is poetical and romantic. He tells her of all the times when he was young and in his wheelchair, sitting by the window and looking out at the hills, how he used to dream about the sea, and all the lands beyond. Now he was well enough to travel, he was keeping the promise he’d made to himself all those years ago. (It sounded better when he told it.) Then we get the other reason. He tells Ruth that he’s in love with her, but since she’s in love with Andy….. Ruth is practically wetting herself with excitement by this time, ‘cause she’s actually in love with Robert. She spent time with Andy because Rob was always off on his own, reading some book. Knowing this, Rob agrees to ditch his travel plans, stay on the farm and marry Ruth. (Uncle Dick will be so disappointed. I mean it, he will.)
The next scene is set in the farmhouse, after supper. Rob is taking Ruth and her mother home, while Andy, Ma and Pa Mayo, and Uncle Dick are sitting down talking. Or rather Uncle Dick is talking, about some woman asking a foolish question about where seagulls sleep. He’s an obnoxious old bugger and no mistake. It’s a miracle his crew haven’t murdered him in his sleep and thrown the body overboard. Fortunately, Kate Mayo, Ron and Andy’s mother, is a cheerful soul with a positive outlook. Pa Mayo is a decent enough bloke, not inclined to give too much whisky to Dick, presumably his brother-in-law, but otherwise fine unless his pride in the family farm is attacked. Andy’s very quiet, and goes off to check on one of the cows, which gives Kate a chance to talk about her feeling that things aren’t right. She’s already picked up from the fact that Rob and Ruth were glowing and Andy was down in the dumps that perhaps the wedding they’re all expecting sometime soon may have a different pair at the altar than previously envisaged, but her husband pooh-poohs the idea. Mind you, he does acknowledge she was right later on, after Rob comes back and announces his change of plan. Ma and Pa are delighted, Uncle Dick throws a strop, apparently based on his concern that after getting a cabin freshly painted for Rob to use, the crew will think he was planning on bringing a woman with him, but she’s dumped him. Andy congratulates Rob, having returned just as he was telling everyone his news, but it’s clear he’s been hit hard. As Dick goes on trying to persuade Rob to change his mind, it’s also clear how this is going to play out. Sure enough, Andy soon announces he’ll be going with Uncle Dick in Rob’s place. To stop his father’s protests, he throws some unkind words at him, insulting the very farm he’s loved himself up to now, and that’s too much for his father who disowns him outright. There was a fair bit of humour in this scene, particularly when Pa Mayo went to top up Uncle Dick’s whisky glass. While he’s talking, he keeps pausing just before he pours, and when he finally did pour, it hardly covered the bottom of the glass. We did enjoy the pauses, and the look Dick gave him.
The next scene is set several years ahead. There’s a child, around three years old, called Mary, and Ruth and her mother are now living in the Mayo farmhouse. Ruth looks harassed and worn out, and is increasingly cross with Mary, who isn’t keen to spend time with her bitch of a mother. Ruth’s mother may not be able to walk, but her mouth and tongue are in fine fettle, and so they should be, the amount of exercise they get. Criticising this, carping about that, complaining that no one ever takes her advice, it would try the patience of a saint, something no one would ever accuse her of being. Kate is dressed in black, and we soon get confirmation that Pa Mayo has died, about three years ago, and not long after Rob started working on the farm. As a result, the place has gone steadily downhill; Rob doesn’t have Andy’s experience or aptitude for farming, and without his father’s guidance he’s making a mess of things. This puts a lot of pressure on Ruth, while Kate seems to be content leaving everything in Rob’s incapable hands. She’s not even bothered when Ruth’s mother ‘accidentally’ lets slip that Rob is intending to mortgage the farm. And over all of this hangs the rainbow of Andy’s return. He’s sent them letters, they’re expecting him any day, and everyone seems to think it will all be fine when Andy gets back and takes over the farm. Ruth even tells Rob that she really loved Andy all along, though she didn’t realise it until too late. I did wonder if he would actually turn up at all or whether it would turn out to be their delusions talking, but the first half ends with Andy’s off-stage arrival.
The next scene is back up on the hill. Rob has taken Mary up there, and told her to play in the shade of the tree with her doll. Andy finds him there, and asks about all his experiences. Apparently, the amazing and terrifying time when they went through a monsoon slipped Andy’s mind when he came to write his letters home. (I did briefly wonder if Ruth had been hiding some of them.) Then comes the bad news – Andy plans to spend a short time on the farm, helping them get it back into shape, and making sure he hires a good man to look after things when he’s gone, but then he’s heading back to Argentina, to work in the grain business, where there are fortunes waiting for enterprising young men such as himself. He also tells Rob that he realised pretty soon that he didn’t actually love Ruth, so there needn’t be any tension between them over that.
Rob tells him not to mention this to Ruth, but after he takes Mary back to the house, Ruth arrives, all spruced up now she has a man to attract. When Andy tells her he doesn’t love her, she’s terribly hurt, and then Uncle Dick turns up to tell Andy that a boat in the harbour is actually on the point of leaving for Argentina, and everyone’s fate is sealed.
The next scene is another few years ahead. At the end of setting up the farmhouse room again, Kate, still in black, is standing by Pa Mayo, and Mary runs and joins them. They then leave the stage together, and from this I realised that both Kate and Mary had died. This was confirmed in the opening few minutes of the scene, and I felt this was a very effective use of these scene change moments. Now things have got really bad, with Ruth’s mother having to give Ruth money out of her savings to keep them afloat, but only just afloat. Rob is seriously ill, but still talking of a wonderful future. Ruth looks completely worn out, and her mother is no less bitchy than before. When Andy turns up with a doctor to check up on Rob’s condition, we learn that Rob has indeed very little time left. He tries to get Andy to promise to marry Ruth once he’s dead, but Andy holds off. Ruth and he talk about this, and Ruth explains that Rob still thinks she’s in love with Andy – this bit dragged a little. But then they find Rob has escaped from the bedroom, and they search for him, ending up back on the hilltop.
Rob is there, and this is when the furniture is turned over. The play ends with Rob dying in Andy’s arms. Andy and Ruth have a few more lines, but I don’t remember exactly what was said, although I think there was some reference back to earlier images.
Overall, it was a good play, and a good production, with strong performances all round. Despite a mobile going off towards the end of the penultimate scene, we enjoyed ourselves, and we’re only surprised to find that this is our first visit to the Cottesloe this year.
© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me