Simon Stone’s adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s Yerma may be the best production the Young Vic has staged in some time, but it’s unsuccessful in a range of ways; mostly in its treatment of Lorca’s original “tragic poem” (Lorca’s assessment), but also in its curious lack of empathy for Billie Piper’s title character. A cold, tricksy production that starts extremely well but descends into awkward, frenzied and sterile chaos, this Yerma leaves you unmoved but on edge.
“There’s a moment, about 100 years after the work of an artist, when you can either say “You are now condemned to the ranks of a footnote” or “We are going to make you the centre of an international culture by keeping on telling your stories”. And when the play was written in a language that isn’t the one you’re going to perform it in, the first step is to reinvent it. The sturdiness of the original becomes apparent in the moment of reinvention. The heartbeat coursing through the veins of Yerma is indestructible.
So I leapt at Yerma because I thought it’s time for us to stop thinking of Lorca as Spanish but as a citizen of the world – which he was actually. And I leapt at Yerma because, while it is connected to its socio-political context, it’s a play about a woman who exists everywhere in the world all the time, in the same way as Medea or Antigone. So I wanted to treat Lorca with the same respect that we treat the great myth makers.”
So speaks director/writer Simon Stone in the programme to his production of Yerma which opened tonight at the Young Vic. His version of the play is described as being “after Lorca”; whatever that means, it doesn’t appear to mean “in the style of Lorca”. More accurately, it seems to mean “uses the same title but otherwise bears little resemblance to” Lorca.
Lorca’s most successful plays already have substantial international reputations and the universality of his characters and their concerns is undoubted. Both Blood Wedding and The House of Bernada Alba have long histories of international productions; neither is considered a “Spanish” play. Lorca has an established reputation as a citizen of the world; he is in no danger of being a footnote.
Certainly, Yerma is reinvented here. This is not a play about a woman driven, by the demands of an oppressive society, to desperately seek pregnancy at any cost. This is not a play about the destruction of a woman by her quest to fulfil the role she is expected to fulfil, at least in her mind, as bearer of children.
This Yerma is about quite different, quite modern, considerations. The heartbeat coursing through Lorca’s Yerma is fundamentally different from that coursing through Stone’s version. Motivations, ramifications and actions bear no resemblance to Lorca’s original. Stone has applied his own pacemaker to Lorca’s heartbeat, with the result that this Yerma has its own pulse.
Billie Piper plays the title role: a successful career woman, a journalist/influential blogger, with a fearsome reputation and skill. At 33, she has never considered having children, never thought that she might want them. She doesn’t feel constrained by any peer pressure to reproduce and she has a solid relationship with her partner, John (Brendan Cowell). She worries that he may be losing interest in her sexually; he claims he is just forty and thus slighter slower than he once was.
Unexpectedly, for both characters really, Piper’s Yerma decides she wants to have a child. Having decided that this is what she wants, Yerma becomes single-minded in the pursuit of offspring. Joint funds are expended in the costly pursuit of IVF and debt is incurred which places an unbearable burden on her relationship with John.
Deception and intrigue and suspicion characterise Yerma’s increasingly aberrant behaviour. Her fertile sister, Mary (Charlotte Randle) has children easily and doesn’t particularly care for them; her mother, Helen (Maureen Beattie), is a reluctant grandmother with a penchant for brutal truths about her own indifference to her own children; her assistant, Des (Thalissa Teixeira) is embroiled in Yerma’s work and leisure activities; and her former boyfriend, Victor (John MacMillan), unexpectedly returns to her life, a successful father.
Each of these characters, inadvertently mostly, crank up the pressure that Yerma feels as she continually fails to achieve the only goal she cannot attain on her own – motherhood.
Just as he did with his (much more successful) production of The Wild Duck, Stone sets proceedings in a glass box. The Young Vic auditorium is in traverse mode, so each side of the audience looks through the glass box at each other; reflections and glimpses of other audience members are a constant presence throughout the performance, providing a kind of faux silent Greek chorus effect. It is hard to see that anything is gained by this approach.
The actors have little in the way of props to work with and there is a carpeted surface, which changes occasionally to depict grass or gravel. Lighting is harsh and uncompromising. For reasons which are unclear, there are black and white monitors on each side of the stage which provide a kind of Sixties television drama caption effect to detail the stages of Yerma’s life that will unfold. These captions also mark the passage of time (unfeasibly, it seems like decades pass given all the “months/years later” cards that appear) and tantalise with snippets of information about what will happen in the narrative. Their use becomes increasingly irritating.
Scene changes are marked by blackouts and loud music. At first, the music is haunting and somehow ethereal; it uses vocal lines that make Kurt Weill seem like Jerry Herman, discordant and jarring, but nevertheless powerful. Later, more classical music comes into play. But the repetition of harsh, loud sounds grows wearisome.
There are a couple of interesting moments with the set. The first occurs when the audience is shown a domestic scene involving Yerma, John and a baby – suddenly, the lighting is warm, the area full of furniture suggesting a kind, loving environment. Yerma is inexpressibly joyful, playing with a baby, John joining in. This may be dream or a depiction of a time where Yerma and John are babysitting Mary’s infant. Either way, it potently demonstrates Yerma’s yearning.
The second is probably intended as a sublime coup de théâtre. Rain pours from the heavens in specified areas of the playing space evoking the notion of the raging power of Mother Nature and diminishing the stature of the individuals given a soaking. Unfortunately, occasional dripping throughout the early stages of the play robs this moment of any “wow” factor. It looks impressive but it doesn’t amount to much.
The first thirty or so minutes of the play are electric. Piper and Cowell are excellent together, clearly establishing their very confident, very up-to-date relationship. Cynical and smart, they play and gently tear at each other, talking over and across each other, sort of listening, sort of ignoring what the other says. Champagne, mortgages, landing clients, making an impact, Yerma and John may have a cooling passion to deal with, but they live well and as they please. The carnal connection between them is clear as is their sense of shared commitment and mutually agreed futures.
They may not ever come across as the perfect couple, but they seem like a realistic “now” couple.
There are funny scenes as Mary and Helen are introduced; they may both be related to Yerma but neither have her stamina or energy and neither have the urgent need to be a mother that Yerma develops. These three actors do excellent work together and there is a true sense of the family unit in their work. Beattie is especially good as the dry hippie mother who laments the loss of the freedom of the Sixties. Randle is brusque and querulous as the fecund Mary; everything an exhausted, uncertain mother might be. Piper is offhand and superior, hiding a severe sense of inferiority which escalates over time.
Teixeira and MacMillan play their roles extremely well, but the purpose of their characters is not that clear. Stone’s re-invention has many threads, but not all of them are purposeful, not all of them end up as part of the final tapestry. Victor and Des are characters who are more plot devices than real people and their presence serves to undermine the empathy for and connection with Yerma. This is not about either actor; it’s a fault in the writing.
Stone’s narrative is not cohesive enough to sustain attention and involvement. Rather than concentrate on Yerma’s unravelling through her relationships with her partner, mother and sister, Stone casts a wider net. Victor and Des come to represent aspects of Yerma’s more extreme, more unlikeable behaviour; their presence undermines the audience’s comprehension of Yerma’s pain.
There is little lyrical drive in the dialogue or the rhythmic sense of this Yerma. In the end, we don’t really understand what has happened to Yerma, why she has fallen apart. Nor, most egregiously, do we care.
This has nothing to do, really, with Piper; again, it’s the writing and the production. The glass box invites a clinical observational tone; rather than getting lost in the story and the emotions of the central character, the audience is kept at a distance, constantly reminded that “this is theatre”.
Of all of the cast, Cowell fares best. He gives a nuanced, mature performance which surfs between laddish oaf, hopeful father and broken (financially and emotionally) partner, smoothly and totally believably. He charts the devastation John experiences with candour and unflinching, raw honesty. His final scene with Piper is genuinely affecting, the ravages of pain clear and complex.
Piper is in good form, no trace of the lovable Rose from Doctor Who here; she is calculating, powerful, highly sexual, ferociously driven. Her scenes with Cowell, especially at the start of the play, are her finest work. She carries the burden of the play, and its muddled erratic sensibility proves to be defeating. There is too much excess and screaming in the latter part of the play; but that is not a matter of Piper’s choice – its Stone’s writing.
The final scene in this Yerma, so fundamentally different from Lorca’s, ought to evoke a sense of devastating loss. Try as she might, though, Piper can’t make it work as it should. Its like expecting audiences to care about Hamlet having removed all the soliloquies and the Player King scenes from the play: the narrative path just doesn’t lead to the expected climax and no actor can make it.
It is hard to fault the design here: set (Lizzie Clachan), costumes (Alice Babidge), Lighting (James Farncombe), Music and Sound (Stefan Gregory) and videos (Jack Henry James) all combine to create a particular aesthetic. But that aesthetic feel doesn’t really assist in conveying the essence or detail of the play. It looks and feels like a tricky experiment, with little soul, little warmth, little humanity.
Lorca’s Yerma, a richly drawn and timeless tragedy, deserves a better adaptation and more sensitive, illuminating direction than that Stone here provides. One can’t see this production as being other than a footnote in history.