Yerma

Federico Garcia Lorca
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
(2003)

A reduced guide to Yerma, currently running at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, might go as follows: Spanish woman, married for seven years but still childless, spends two hours bemoaning her fate. If I were to add that Lorca’s theatre is apparently predicated on a single theme: namely, that the preservation of honour leads to the frustration of love - and therefore life itself - which in turn leads to despair and ultimately death, you might be forgiven for making with all haste in the opposite direction of St Anne’s Square; but you’d be missing out - no, honestly!

On a cold winter’s afternoon, Helena Kaut-Howson’s production of Yerma succeeded in taking me far away, using only minimal props, sound effects and actors. You could feel the heat of the earth; mud under your feet, were blinded by the fierce sun; lulled by the sound of song, bells, livestock and the nearby stream; were almost convinced you could smell the gardenias, jasmine.

Theatrically, in many ways, I would say Yerma is a triumph. Certainly the Royal Exchange Theatre is to be congratulated for a piece of very imaginative programming. Best known over here as a poet, Lorca’s career, which promised so much, was cut short in 1936 by Franco’s henchman, just two years after the premier of Yerma, the second part of a proposed theatrical trilogy.

Certainly the play is a far cry from what was happening, say, over on these shores at this time when Coward was in his pomp. In perhaps the best scene in the play, the village women gather at the stream - which symbolically dries up when Yerma is on stage - and wash their clothes, gossiping, singing a series of bawdy songs, beating their clothes on the rocks. By her condition, Yerma is excluded and, as the programme reminds us, women even into the 1960s in Spain were confined to their houses, excepting necessary errands. For Lorca’s heroine, her house is a tomb.

Lorca writes sympathetically, perhaps driven by his own feelings about his homosexuality and barrenness, but the adaptation, by Pam Gems, is uneven. The professed “richly poetic” writing of Lorca veers into banality: viz., “How’s it going?” - “Leave it”, and the like, though the writing does take flight, as in the lines: “women have blood for four or five children: if she doesn’t have them it turns to poison; here, inside,” and, when Yerma asks what pregnancy is like she is told by a neighbour: “Have you ever held a live bird in your hand? It’s like that, but in your blood.”

Despite the cavils of the critic of one national newspaper, I thought the cast were very good. One could argue, as the critic did, that they didn’t seem very Spanish, but blonde actresses are necessarily at a disadvantage, looks-wise. Does it matter? Did Olivier seem very Moorish playing Othello? What matters, surely, is the intensity and integrity brought to the role. Denise Black in the title role (perhaps best known for her role as Ken Barlow’s paramour in Coronation Street), is impressive; more so is Anni Domingo as Pagan Woman. The weakest link I felt was Peter Gowan as Juan, Yerma’s husband, who, enraged, reminded me, alas, of Basil Fawlty. He couldn’t quite summon the tragedy and you could all too easily imagine him saying: “This is typical.”

I wasn’t convinced by the greatness of Lorca’s play, but I welcomed the opportunity to experience it, particularly in a time of Coward, Somerset Maugham and Terence Rattigan revivals.

Reviewer: Pete Wood