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Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1934 drama about a farmer’s wife who goes mad because of her inability to conceive a child would seem to have little contemporary relevance. The classic work set in rural Spain depicts a highly religious society in which childbearing is considered an essential aspect of womanhood. The genius, then, of Australian writer-director Simon Stone’s modern-day adaptation is how it reconceives this elemental, almost mythical drama into a shattering psychological study. Yerma will leave you shaken long after you’ve left the theater.
First seen at London’s Young Vic, where it won Olivier Awards for best revival and best actress for its star Billie Piper, the production has been imported to New York City’s Park Avenue Armory. While the cavernous hall seemed an incongruous venue for this highly intimate drama, Yerma packs so much searing emotion that it easily fills the space.
Updated to modern-day London, the play revolves around its unnamed lead character (Piper), a successful journalist and blogger referred to only as “Her” in the program (Yerma is Spanish for “barren”). The first scene shows Her and her successful businessman husband John (Brendan Cowell) spending an evening lazily chatting in their newly purchased home, until she tentatively brings up the issue of having a child. At first taken aback, John quickly agrees, showing his sincerity by gleefully stomping on her package of birth control pills.
And then the nightmare begins, as over the course of the next five years she desperately attempts to get pregnant, with no results. The initially supportive John becomes increasingly impatient with the demands placed on him, including curtailing his extensive travel schedule so he can be home when his wife is most fertile. He’s also deeply embarrassed by her frank accounts of their struggles to conceive, published in her widely read blog.
Compounding the lead character’s distress are her relationships with her sister Mary (Charlotte Randle), who has no trouble conceiving but suffers from post-partum depression; her caustic feminist mother Helen (Maureen Beattie) who didn’t particularly want children and doesn’t see what the fuss is about; and former boyfriend Victor (John MacMillan), who deeply resented her decision to abort their child a decade earlier. As time goes on she becomes increasingly obsessed, her life and marriage unraveling in the process. As with Lorca’s original play, this version ends in tragedy.
Stone makes audacious stylistic choices. The staging is presented in Lizzie Clachan’s brilliant set consisting of a narrow glass box bisecting the auditorium in which scenic aspects seem to magically appear and disappear. The actors speak in naturalistic tones, their dialogue heavily amplified via large speakers. The short scenes are separated by blackouts punctuated by projected chapter headings (“Moratorium,” “Deception”), portentous phrases (“The cracks start to show”) and eerie female choral music that grows louder and more dissonant as the play progresses.
The overall effect proves deeply unsettling; watching the characters’ increasingly tumultuous interactions through the transparent walls, we feel both like voyeurs spying on intensely private events and scientists dispassionately studying the behavior of a strange species. A species that lays bare its personal lives for public consumption via social media.
The characters and dialogue unerringly ring true in this loose adaptation in which the original’s societal and religious pressures have been internalized in psychological terms. Even as the central character descends deeper and deeper into despair, refusing even to entertain the possibility of adopting a child, we sympathize with her elemental struggle.
Although all of the members of the ensemble do excellent work (including Thalissa Teixeira as the protagonist’s young co-worker and friend Des), much of the production’s impact is due to Piper, here making her American stage debut.
A former teenage pop star whose previous credits include the television series Doctor Who, The Secret Diary of a Call Girl and Penny Dreadful, Piper has garnered acclaim in recent years for her performances in such plays as The Effect and Reasons to Be Pretty. Her work here is simply staggering. Her character, at first delightfully and sexily full of life, devolves in such heartbreaking, visceral fashion that the evening takes on the feel of Greek tragedy. When the actress appears at the curtain call, looking emotionally and physical exhausted, you find yourself relieved that she’s OK and concerned that she’ll have to do it all over again the next night.
Venue: Park Avenue Armory, New York
Cast: Maureen Beattie, Brendan Cowell, John MacMillan, Billie Piper, Charlotte Randle, Thalissa Teixeira
Director-playwright: Simon Stone, after Federico Garcia Lorca
Set designer: Lizzie Clachan
Costume designer: Alice Babidge
Lighting designer: James Farncombe
Music and sound designer: Stefan Gregory
Video designer: Jack Henry James
Production: Park Avenue Armory, Young Vic
Presented by Park Avenue Armory
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