It is simply inconceivable that you can walk out from seeing Yerma at the Young Vic and not feel as if you have been completely gutted out from the inside. It is powerful, heady stuff. And at the heart of it is, unquestionably, the finest performance on the London stage right now.
Director Simon Stone has taken Lorca’s 1930s play about a woman who discovers she cannot have children and has transported it from rural Catholic Spain to modern day agnostic London.
Some specifics of Lorca’s original work have been altered or blended away (and those specifics are a little tricky to talk about without spoiling both the original and the adaptation) but this version takes the general theme of childlessness and considers, for modern women with no social obligation to have children, what weight does not being able to have children bear today?
And it’s a prescient issue. A maternal desire for children did not evaporate with women’s entry into the workplace. And the questionable profiteering by IVF clinics shows how important this remains for many women.
And at the centre of this adaptation is Billie Piper as Yerma, or rather Her (the character here remains unnamed, no doubt to represent a placeholder for many women).
I would say Billie Piper is the beating heart of this production but that would undersell her scorching delivery significantly. Billie Piper is the raging inferno at the centre of this show. Her spirit, her drive, and her total lack of inhibition captures the ferocity of this modern Yerma as her relentless pursuit for her own baby at any cost lays waste to the idyllic life she had created for herself.
Not even the word ‘faultless’ would do Billie Piper justice. That is too conservative a description. She is fearless, provocative and achingly brilliant. Billie’s Yerma is seductive and manipulative, cruel and bitter, desperate and lonely. That Billie can capture all of these at once is impressive; that she can flip from a giggling flirt to a desolate depression in the snap of a finger without once making this transition seem anything other than understandable is something else.
But that’s not to say that every element of this production can go toe-to-toe with its lead actress.
The story is told over many years, and that is demonstrated by having the theatre plunged into darkness between each scene with text such as ‘Six months later’ or ‘Two years later’ beamed onto screens dotted around the auditorium. It does give the performance a very ‘and then this happened…’ feel to it. ‘And then this…’ ‘And then this…’ The fragmented approach does steer the production very close to losing momentum and drive at some points.
Yet, it seems, it has to be told like this because no matter in which year or what stage of this story the lights come back up in, it always seems to be 2016, not long after Brexit. Whether the story has moved on six months, two years or five, the cultural references remain the same – Macbooks remain the computer of choice, Glasto in the mud seems to be eternal, and it seems even years from now we will still be blogging.
Perhaps that was deliberate – an attempt to predict the future might have made the production clunky – but there’s no doubting the brilliance in the set design from Lizzie Clachan.
The stage stands in the middle of the theatre, encased on all sides by glass. This makes us, the audience, almost like scientists, examining the dissection of the dying bird in the petri dish in front of us. Yerma always out of reach, perhaps too fragile to touch – only observable from a distance.
That distance and that barrier between us and the main character only serve to heighten the distress as Yerma plunges inexorably towards her nadir. We are powerless to help – and she is unable to flee.
But the lack of inhibition and the raw visceral power in Billie Piper’s performance transcends the challenges in the production. She is awesome, simply awesome.
Yet something intrigues me about her excavation of Yerma. Here she is framed as a woman driven mad through lack of a child. But as I left the theatre, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was as much an examination of a childless woman unravelling into insanity, as it was an insanity caused by childlessness.
Is the childlessness a cause here? Or Yerma’s obsession over it a symptom?
Would Yerma have found peace through motherhood? Would having a child have saved her marriage? You can’t help but feel, absolutely not.
Maybe therefore this could be seen on how obsession might be a sign of madness, rather than its cause. Perhaps, through this play (intentional or not), we begin to delve deeper into the symptom-causal link between women, childlessness and insanity.
History is littered with unnamed women described as mad because of childlessness. Often that has suited society’s desire to frame women solely as mothers. And perhaps societal expectations have, in turn, weaved its way into women’s guilt and mental health. Does Yerma go mad because she is childless? Or is this a glimpse into insanity where childlessness is used as its explanation?
Whichever, it is the sign of a show that leaves its mark when it leaves you with as many questions as answers
Young Vic Theatre, London to September 24, 2016
All photos by Johan Persson