Yerma at the Young Vic

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Photo: Young Vic

Australian theatre’s “enfant terrible,” Simon Stone, rewrites and directs Lorca’s Yerma through a glass darkly.

Opening night of Yerma at The Young Vic provided some of the most curious pre-show moments of the year. A luminous glass cage encloses the stage, dissecting the Main House into two sections. Once seated, for a split second, you are shocked to stare straight into the ghostly reflections of yourself and your neighbors, but no, they are actually your fellow playgoers settled directly across. Promptly at the play’s start time, Simon Stone, the redactor of this 1934 poetic tragedy by Federico García Lorca, sprung up from his perch in the back of the stalls with a microphone readily at hand. Forewarning Murphy’s law (anything that can go wrong, will go wrong), Stone offered Puck’s advice from A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a remedy: if the play has offended the audience, then they, too, should remember it simply as a dream (“Think but this, and all is mended”.) As the first audience to respond to this retelling of Yerma, we would also be active meaning-makers of its textual creation, we were told. With all that glass encouraging our bogus doppelgangers to study us from the other side of the auditorium, rarely has the fourth wall been so explicitly unveiled before the start of a show, nevermind broken.

Billie Piper plays our modern heroine (dubbed simply “Her”), a Londoner and a celebrated lifestyle blogger, who documents her struggles with infertility. But Piper’s digital native seems to straddle the Gen X/Millennial divide. She amusedly balks at her twenty-something assistant (played by Thalissa Teixeira, who sparkles) and her prurient approach toward hook-uppery (“So, I definitely has sex last night. Need anything from the chemist?” is dispensed matter-of-factly), she marvels at the importance of personal branding over meaningful content, and she derides “liking” online rather than loving in analogue (“Once your generation loses 4G, you freak out!”). She attaches a verbal eye roll to each sarcastic prescription, in the way that Homer always prefixes “fleet-footed” to “Achilles.” (Sing, O muse, of Kids Today, those Takers-of-Selfies!) Piper’s mandible-defying smile—which flits faintly from winning to Cheshire-cat to grin-and-bare-it—boasts the durability to survive a nuclear winter. One can imagine it, divested from a Piper’s apple-cheeked profile, meditating serenely above a brutalized landscape, like Dali’s rose.

By the end, her character’s obsession with child-bearing has melted Piper’s own classical blonde babeness into an equally makeup-strewn, equally rabid version of Heath Ledger’s Joker. Her sister, her ex-boyfriend’s current and former partners, flummoxed by their own potency, all seem to become pregnant effortlessly. This close-to-home connectedness of vibrant fertility, pulled into the story’s gravitational field, serves to push Piper’s character off the edge. Maureen Beattie, as our heroine’s less-than-affectionate professor (first) mother (second), lyrically uplifts the play with her tart trill. (If only we could bottle it up and save it for future use to accentuate our own pragmatic, deadpan assessments.) Combined with the transformative imagination of Lizzie Clachan’s set designs—within an hour, the crystalline microcosm becomes a garden wedding, a trampled field at Glastonbury, a house emptied for sale—and signaled by a mash-up of high-pitched choral music and staccato yawping, Stone’s scene changes are more convincing as film transitions.

But the play’s strengths finally disintegrate because it’s so solipsistically centred: the characters end up resembling exasperating, self-obsessed, highly watchable urban elites, rather than amplified caricatures of the same. Brendan Cowell, as the husband, is a bit more stolid in attitude. He is compelled by Piper to challenge her self-justifying aphorism for aphorism, comeback for comeback, in tempo as well as in sarcasm. (After one of these death-gripped duets, she bites back at him, sans smirk: “I see how I’ve joined the ranks of the narcissists.”) If only Yerma’s cinematic language was intelligent, cracking fun, employed to propel a somber feminist hitch, but, good God, it’s not: with so much disconcerting, avante-garde gravitas, it could run for the next leader of the Labour party.

In an interview with the BBC, Stone emphasizes the intended universality of his story: “The play that I’m writing is for the theatre I’m putting it on in. The theatre happens to be in London in 2016,” he states. “This particular myth of the woman who can’t, surrounded by women who can, is happening everywhere in the world at all times.” But riddled with references to Sadiq Khan, Brexit, the pram-pushing yummy mummies of Primrose Hill, and Deliveroo, Stone should redefine what he means by transplanting Yerma for “our” contemporary context. In Lorca’s original, Yerma finds her husband barren, but she is doomed to stay with him because she must maintain her honour. Killing him, therefore, is her only way out of the conflict imposed by Spanish Catholic morality. The dialectics of Piper’s demise are more difficult to pin down. Stone’s Yerma turns into a narrow, female-centered world about privilege, about a woman blatantly branded as educated, urban, white. Her addiction to in vitro fertilization leads to her husband’s bankruptcy. While she chuckled in agreement with his dig at the yummy mummies, perhaps she is really just another careerist city girl forever in search of a decent blow-dry. But this interpretation would do Piper’s blistering exertions, and women who have suffered from infertility, a disservice.

Judged purely on style and Piper’s performance, Yerma is a great production. But the play’s investigation of the object of our heroine’s unhappiness is not a studied point. Its dramatic force—its thematic justification—is lost in its stylization. “Why does she need a baby to attain happiness?” Or, if child-bearing is not a means to an end, “Why does she need give birth to attain happiness?” are questions that Stone is unable to pose, let alone answer. Yerma, for all its experimental charisma, overcompensates with witty rapid-fire line delivery set in a certain London milieu: it has fallen for its own sales pitch.

 By Megan Rene Bradshaw


Yerma by Simon Stone after Fedeica Garcia Lorca
The Young Vic
29 July – 10 September 2016