Yerma

Billie Piper, Brendan Cowell

 

by Carol Rocamora

 

 

Brace yourself for Billie Piper’s anguished performance in Yerma, now playing at the Park Avenue Armory.  Brutal in its emotional nakedness, it will drive a stake right through your soul.

Director Simon Stone has done a radically reimagined adaptation of Garcia Lorca’s 1934 drama, about a young married woman who is unable to conceive.   He’s updated it from Garcia Lorca’s primitive, rural, Spanish setting, giving it a fresh context.  Indeed, its contemporary relevance is so acute that you’ll be on the edge of your seat, watching helplessly as a woman’s life unravels before your eyes only a few feet away.

Stone goes as far as Edward Albee (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) on the subject of marriage and infertility – adding an extra dimension.  He makes the story hyper-theatrical, staging it in an empty corridor between two banks of audience seating.  The corridor is lined with glass walls, so the effect is that you’re watching a scientific experiment, peering into the intimate moments of the couple’s life.  Nothing is hidden from you.  The scenes unfold with breakneck speed under blinding lights, jolted by sudden blackouts and deafening original music, designed by Stefan Gregory.  Years pass in moments, as the desperate couple struggle in vain to achieve their dream. The result is a hyper-real, electrifying atmosphere, charged with unbearable tension.

Billie Piper, Charlotte Randle, Maureen Beattie

 

The setting is contemporary, affluent London.  “Her” (as Yerma is called) is an editor in her early 30s, who lives with John, a businessman.  It’s a long-term relationship – they love each other, they’re happy, and now Her would like to have a baby.  From that moment on, the well-intending couple dives into a freefall of anxiety, confusion and pain, as they desperately try to make Her’s dream come true.

The story unfolds over a seven- year period, roughly, during which it seems that everyone around Her is fertile – except Her.  Mary, Her’s sister (Charlotte Randle) is unhappily married (“I’m a terrible mother,” she confesses); still, she keeps getting pregnant.  Similarly, Victor (John MacMillan), Her’s former lover, has already fathered a child from a one-night stand.

 

John MacMillan

 

John (Brendan Cowell) does his best.  They marry, hoping that the official gesture will do the trick.  She plants a garden, hoping that watching things grow will inspire fertility.  But something’s still not working.  She goes to a fertility clinic, and the process becomes all-consuming.  “Is my life trying to ruin me?” she cries.

As Her’s obsession grows more desperate, the scenes get shorter and shorter, intensifying and crescendoing into the final shocking twenty minutes.  (Alert: no spoiler, but Stone’s ending is different than Lorca’s original, wherein the title character kills her husband.  Suffice it to say, in Stone’s adaptation is equally violent and horrifying).

The play’s power comes from the ingenious direction, tight ensemble work, and above all, Piper’s emotionally searing performance.  A fearless actress, she goes as far as anyone I’ve seen on the stage.  She plays “Her” with aching vulnerability, and her unraveling is utterly devastating, not to mention heartbreaking.  On Lizzie Clachan’s bare, glass-enclosed set, she’s completely defenseless. It’s the most powerful performance of the season.

Director Stone explains: “I leapt at Yermabecause it’s a play about a woman who exists everywhere in the world all the time, in the same way as Medea or Antigone.”

Her’s tragedy is universal – one with which we can all empathize.

 

Photos: Stephanie Berger

 

Yerma, adapted and directed by Simon Stone, after Federico Garcia Lorca, at the Park Avenue Armory until April 21.

 

 

 

 

 

Share