This latest offering as part of the NT Live series, filmed at the Young Vic, is a very strong and powerful production, bleak and emotionally shattering.
Simon Stone, the Australian director, has taken Federico García Lorca’s 1934 tragedy and morphed it from 1930’s rural Spain to contemporary London, turning its story of the agonies of childlessness into a challenging, extremely contemporary play.
In the original, Lorca’s heroine is a farmer’s wife driven crazy by her failure to conceive, in a repressive society where child¬bearing is regarded as her main raison d’etre.
Here in this version (with mobile phones and computers, and lots of strong language) Stone’s protagonist (simply called Her, as played by Billie Piper) is a successful journalist who has always refused to be defined by the ticking clock of her reproductive system. However, on the day she and her partner, John (Brendan Cowell) move into their new home, she reveals her wish to have a baby. We then follow them through five harrowing years of barrenness, Her’s baby wish becoming a catastrophic obsession.
The play takes place in a glass cube with reflective mirrors. Mostly the stage floor is white, but at some points it has grass included. Minimalist various props (chairs, drinks tables, trees etc) are carried on/off by the cast and crew.
Lizzie Clachan’s design has the effect of making her life a goldfish bowl and the production strongly hints that Her’s blog has made her private life fair game for the more troll-like members of the online universe.
There is a strange rather surreal scene towards the conclusion, where Her, now high on drugs at a festival and drenched by light misty rain, paws at the soil as if trying to invoke some sort of Pagan goddess.
Billie Piper (yes Rose Tyler from Doctor Who) eponymous’ character is Her, an affluent journalist who habitually writes about her obsession with starting a family in a blog which is simultaneously articulate, self centred , and embarrassingly hurtful to those she loves.
She and John, talk over each other, get drunk, bicker, goad each other, and enjoy their increasingly privileged life together as sophisticated left-leaning ‘smug marrieds’ in London – until She decides she wants a baby. Adoption, however is not an option.
Billie Piper as Her is luminous and amazing in a searing, towering, powerhouse performance that leaves you shattered at the end. She performs with a disturbing, passionate apparently spontaneous truth as we watch her spiral into darkness.
Excellent Australian actor Brendan Cowell is on a knife edge balancing between the understanding and sensitive and the selfish in John’s participation and agreement with Her wish to have a child until looming financial ruin and her worrying mental health force him to declare an end to the IVF treatments.
We follow John’s journey from a cosmopolitan guy scared of commitment to emotionally pummelled and stressed one. He desperately attempts to meet Her needs, to try and save Her, but this becomes impossible.
The scenes with her ex that unexpectedly returns (Victor, as wonderfully played by John Macmillan) are tender, wistfully heartbreaking imaginings of what might have been, oppressively disturbing to consider given the current situation.
Stone has his cast interrupting each other, with very quick speeches at times, or not completing sentences and often speaking quietly, sometimes even murmuring in hushed tones which sometimes meant that the dialogue was at times almost inaudible.
This was contrasted with the snap of blackouts, the use of Brechtian like surtitles to indicate the time frame, and the audience being deafened by the score during scene changes (women’s voices blasting out choral chants for example). Strobe lighting is also used .
There are fine performances throughout by the very strong ensemble. Stone accentuates the multi layers of Her’s sense of being an unnecessary victim. Her rather detached, abrasive mother (Maureen Beattie) doesn’t pressure her and her and her post¬natally depressed sister (Charlotte Randle) is a torment to her because of the irony that producing babies has apparently been no problem for these seemingly unmaternal women.
This is a confronting play and Stone directs it dynamically with a great sense of urgency. We are asked to question the stereotypical conventional ideas of what being a woman is and whether being a mother is the be all and end all of everything. YERMA (which, by the way, means barren in Spanish) is both inexorable and scrupulous in its roughly 90 minutes ranging from witty and vibrant social comment to cataclysmic extremes.
Running time allow 2 hours (there is a short film and interview beforehand and the ads) the actual performance is 90 minutes no interval.
YERMA screens as part of the NT Live series in selected cinemas from October 14 2017