Federico García Lorca
Cervantes Theatre
Cervantes Theatre

Juan (Tom Whitelock) and Yerma (Leila Damilola) Credit: Elena Molina
Yerma (Leila Damilola) Credit: Elena Molina
Yerma Credit: Elena Molina

What can a woman do if the world insists she bear children and that hasn’t happened in five years of marriage?

That’s the dilemma facing Yerma (Leila Damilola) in a fine lyrical English translation of Lorca’s play by Carmen Zapata and Michael Dewell.

Jorge de Juan’s sensitive, intense, ninety-minute adaptation is set amidst an Afro-Cuban community, in the sweltering heat and light of pre-revolutionary Cuba 1953.

A multicoloured hammock hangs centre-stage against a bamboo and bright canvas backdrop.

The women talk about children. An older woman says she has given birth to nine. A young woman brings Yerma cloth to make things for her new baby. And everyone knows Yerma is five years without purpose.

Yerma tells her husband Juan (Tom Whitelock) that “a country girl without a child is as useless as a handful of thorns.”

Juan is cold and seemingly uninterested in either women or having a child. But as a woman suggests to Yerma, “you have feet.” She could walk away from him and we all see she has a restrained passion for Victor (Jazz Brown) who once long ago carried her in his arms.

As they look at each other, as they join in a song the other began, they know that something is still possible if it wasn’t a matter of honour that nothing should happen and honour count so much for Yerma.

Leila Damilola in a fine performance as the restless Yerma takes us from a low-key opening to a stunningly emotional climax never missing a beat of the language. Indeed so well did she inhabit the role she needed to be held crying during the final applause.

And then I sat chatting with reviewers who were sceptical about the continued relevance of Lorca’s depiction of Yerma, as if the world, even in liberal London, had abandoned the narrowing of women’s gender roles.

And of course such pressure no longer prevents them stepping into other roles. After all, the UK has now just appointed its third female to the Supreme Court. Fifteen percent of private company board members are women as are twelve percent of university vice-chancellors and women are allowed to apply to be artistic director of the National Theatre.

The world may not be holding women back in the same way but something is and I think I know what Lorca would say about that.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna