Yerma at the Young VicCultureTheatre
How does a modern, feminist woman reconcile the perceived tension between breaking the shackles of patriarchal oppression while also wanting to have a baby, something that is too often held up as the pinnacle of female achievement? Is there even a tension to resolve? By updating Federico Garcia Lorca’s tale of pained childlessness from rural Spain to modern day London, Simon Stone’s Yerma manages to preserve the themes of the original narrative without sacrificing the need to ask a new set of questions.
One could challenge Stone’s decision to take on Lorca’s text; it feels somewhat unfortunate that in 2016 this story is being told by a man. Yet it is important to emphasise just how much this is Billie Piper’s retelling as it is Stone’s. It’s the kind of performance that makes you wish the actress was a permanent fixture in the West End. Piper eschews melodrama to instead focus on the minutiae of what it means when her body won’t let her have something society has told women is their biological right, a desire that is potentially at odds with her feminism. When frustration and anger and shame flash across the face of Piper’s Yerma (or Her as she is referred to in the play) as she finds out her sister is pregnant for a second time, the effect is stunning; it’s the intelligence of an actor respecting the audience’s ability to process seconds of subtlety.
Piper is not alone, however. Brendan Cowell manages to find genuine love and hurt in Her’s husband John, a man that could have all too easily been dismissed as a disengaged workaholic. As the narrative progresses, Cowell and Piper begin to tear strips off each other with such violence that it’s intrusive, like walking in on one’s parents’ row. Lizzie Clachan’s glass box design, with seating on both sides, only adds to the sense of voyeurism, while creating an air of middle-class suffocation for those trapped inside. It brings to mind Ivo van Hove’s A View to a Bridge (incidentally the Young Vic’s last mega-hit), apt since Stone has previously worked with the Dutchman’s Toneelgroep. There are even similar choral interludes, amping up the sense of foreboding while winking at the audience’s expectation of tragedy.
The play is all the more affecting due to Stone’s unwillingness to paint the narrative in any colour but grey. It would be very easy to make John completely callous, or Her’s want for a baby monstrous; instead judgement is never passed, each moment merely presented as a glimpse of unfiltered, utterly human, ugliness.
Photo: Johan Persson
Yerma is on at the Young Vic from 28th July to 24th September 2016, for further information or to book a visit here.