Broadcast live from the Young Vic theatre, Simon Stone’s reworking of Federico García Lorca’s play, Yerma, can be summed up in two words; brutally chaotic. These words, however, are by no means a criticism.
Yerma, meaning ‘barren’ in Spanish, follows the story of a young woman whose intense longing for a child drives her further and further into madness and eventually results in suicide. Although Stone’s production, featuring a stellar cast led by Billie Piper, was set in a wildly different environment to the original, it retained the potent narrative and demonstrated how such a tale is still very much relevant today.
The production was staged in the round – or a rectangle, should we say – and the action took place entirely within a glass box. Coupled with the extremely minimal set, often just a chair or a box, this allowed for seamless scene changes and complete immersion in the play. The scenery also linked to the main theme of the play: infertility. During the last half, the box was transformed into a garden, first full of green grass, then mud, and finally dust.
[Piper’s] portrayal of ‘Yerma’ was dazzlingly fierce
Each scene change was treated as a new chapter, with a title appearing that told the audience which point we were at and how much time had elapsed since the last. These were all accompanied by choral music of which the intensity, at least it seemed to me, changed to reflect each new chapter. This heightened the sense of desperate tension within the play, which quickly transcended into the audience (I may or may not have jumped at a loud bang and simultaneously shouted, “oh shit”).
The media hype around Billie Piper and the numerous awards she has received for the role are certainly justifiable. Her portrayal of ‘Yerma’ (or ‘her’ as stated on the programme) was dazzlingly fierce and left you feeling more drained than if you’d just done a triathlon, whilst also creating a huge sense of empathy for the character. When an actor plays an iconic role it can be hard to imagine them as anyone else; for me Billie Piper would forever be Belle du Jour in Diary of a Call Girl, but all previous work was forgotten instantly. Piper didn’t just become Yerma, she became so intensely relatable that you couldn’t help but cry with her.
The ensemble as a whole can only be described as spectacular
It must be added, however, that the cast surrounding Piper shone just as brightly as her; Maureen Beattie’s quick wit and cutting tongue as Yerma’s mother, Brendan Cowell as the devoted yet incredibly distant husband, and Charlotte Randle as Yerma’s sister who seems to live the life Yerma yearns for. The ensemble as a whole can only be described as spectacular.
Yerma is one of the most profound and lingering pieces I think I’ve ever seen. Can you imagine how good it would have been if I’d seen it live?