Yerma

Simon Stone after Federico García Lorca
Young Vic Theatre
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This isn’t a version of Lorca’s Yerma done into English so much as a stimulating new play. It takes Lorca’s theme of a woman desperate to have a child and places it firmly in a very different time and setting.

No longer a tale of shepherds and village life in rural Spain, its macho world and honour codes are gone along with its chorus of women gathered to wash their linen. Yerma has even lost her name, identified as simply Her, though she is still yerma, which means barren.

As writer, Simon Stone replaces Lorca’s location with an urban, entirely contemporary world. His central character is now a journalist blogger and her partner an Australian international businessman. Instead of superstitious ritual there is IVF. This woman is driven by her own need rather than any societal idea of reproduction as the female purpose, what becomes, as she says, her obsession.

Stone, who is his own director, together with his designer Lizzie Clachan places the action inside a glass box, a vitrine for viewing. The audience-actor bond of the Young Vic’s auditorium is interrupted, but not its intimacy. We watch with almost microscopic intensity on a stage pared down to bare essentials, at first just two people on a carpet.

The acting, to start with, is entirely naturalistic, the actors’ unprojected voices miked to loudspeakers outside the glass. Concentration makes it feel like close-up, more television or cinema than theatre, and that is reflected in sometimes-short scenes, at times of only moments. There’s no quick cutting between scenes though. Instead there are blackouts when titles appear on video screens giving a chapter number, a time lapse and a title: “The day she decided”, “Happiness”, “She makes a promise” while loud music fills the ears generating tension and excitement.

The production becomes increasingly theatrical; scene changes provide complete changes, though still stark except in one astonishing but momentary instance. Carpets become grass, green lawn and a new-planted tree, dried up and autumnal, reflecting the protagonist’s failure to be fruitful, or rain drenches everything washing all hope away.

These effects are striking but they follow the arc of this woman’s emotion; not a distraction but a support for the moving central performance that Billie Piper delivers. As her happy marriage becomes increasingly fractured, her obsession turns into a kind of madness. Piper as Her is absolutely riveting. We see her playful and sexy, the confident career woman but giving glimpses of the pain and the jealousy caused by seeing others who are mothers, an anguish that fuels an almost confessional blog that exposes the lives of her family and then exploding with emotion as the tragedy reaches its climax.

This amazing, uninhibited performance isn’t a standalone phenomenon. Brendan Cowell as John, her partner, shows a man clinging on to the love they first had, trying to support her; you are never quite sure when love turns to duty as things fall apart but he ends up broken. Maureen Beattie is her Scottish mother, never keen on having children, who can never quite understand why having one becomes so important.

Charlotte Randle is sister Mary who has one pregnancy after another; Thalissa Teixeira is work colleague Des who encourages their blogging exposure. John MacMillan is handsome ex-lover Victor who turns up from the past and gets close when her husband’s away but he fathers his own family, not hers. Though only seen just in relation to the main character, these are all full-bodied performances.

Lorca’s Yerma lives in a different society; Simon Stone’s updating to a time when childlessness is a choice and adoption more common makes Her situation even more isolated. This version changes all the details but keeps the pain and the passion and rises to classic tragic dimensions in a production that is theatrically stunning.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton