An elemental feel pervades this radical revival of Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1934 tragedy. Simon Stone’s version uproots it from 20th-century rural Spain and transplants it in current-day London. His production is blunt, rather than poetic, focusing on the eponymous character, emphasising the physical. Yerma is barren-ness in Spanish. Despite conversations that suggest how the house she shares with her partner, John, is furnished, the set, enclosed within a glass-box — intimating, perhaps, the woman’s closeted, myopic view of her situation — is always nearly empty. It is a world in which lives and emotions are played out in full view to total strangers in our internet-age; here, Yerma’s anguish over her inability to fall pregnant is spilled across cyber-space through online confessions.
Played by Billie Piper, the protagonist is a senior lifestyle journalist who, trekking well into her 30s, is gripped by angst over the inexorable ticking of her biological clock. In contrast with Juan, the husband in the original script, who is a farmer, John is a frequent-travelling top-level executive. There is a fleeting allusion the trips may well be to disguise a paucity of desire for Yerma. But it remains, until the end, hard to discern whether John is selfish or sensitive. Either way, it becomes apparent, as time passes and no child appears, with Yerma moving increasingly towards breaking-point it is the absence of fecundity not fondling that despairs her.
This absence is made more potent when in one scene as Yerma and John are fussing soundlessly about a baby, the stage is decked out with actual couches and real tables. The infant belongs to Mary, Yerma’s sister, as it turns out. Things quickly return to the vacant normal after they leave. But the completeness has made the void more stark, and pronounced. The pain of childlessness is vividly conveyed.
We understand, hence, Yerma’s growing panic and debilitating feelings of helplessness. Yet, in an extravagant departure from Lorca’s work, no part of her deteriorating mental state can be attributable to any social pressure that was present in the conservative and deeply religious agricultural community. As a matter of fact, in this incarnation, both her sister and mother are entirely unmotherly, and even Yerma had herself defied gender definitions. Still, to be fair, one must concede there is probably little distinction by way of the weight upon her mind.
The brilliant, flawless acting by Piper is supported by Brendan Cowell in his fine portrayal of John. There is also good work from John McMillan as Yerma’s ensorcelling ex-lover, and Thalissa Teixeira, her junior colleague.
Brought from the theatre at Young Vic, London, to a cinema in Melbourne, Victoria, Yerma is a vigorous staging, compellingly performed, even if the power of the play may have been somewhat curtailed, despite its modern-time resonance, and psychological insight.