Young Vic Theatre, London (****)
Billie Piper, former singer turned actor, has come a long way. With Lucy Prebble’s explosive The Effect (NT 2012), she signalled a coming-of-age as a major dramatic actor.
Following that with her biliously funny Paige Britain in Richard Bean’s journo farce, Great Britain, she showed her expertise at comic timing.
Now comes another complete change of tone as the childless heroine of Garcia Lorca’s searing, extraordinary Yerma.
The second in his `rural trilogy’ of plays (that includes Blood Wedding and The House of Bernard Alba), Yerma – meaning `barren’ – is the tragic tale of an obsession driven by social stigma and the conventions of Catholic dominated early 20th century rural Spain.
Most productions settle for an Andalusian soaked atmosphere of white walls and parched rigour. Not Simon Stone from Sydney’s Belvoir Company who produced a revelatory Wild Duck two years ago, set within a large glass case, the humans within it seen almost as zoological specimens. The ultimate in Naturalism.
Stone, wanting to raise Yerma to an archetype on a par with the Greek tragic heroines, reproduces something very similar at the Young Vic transforming it into a traverse with another example of humans seen through a glass darkly as Piper and her husband John (a towering performance from Belvoir regular, Brendan Cowell) battle through a childless marriage to its devastating climax.
Shorn of its cauterising social context – mother, sister, friend and ex-boy friend, it’s true, do all make appearances – Stone’s Yerma yet catches the despair of infertility reframed for a modern age with consummate skill and dynamism.
The problem with such enforced naturalism, though, is it makes dialogue at times hard to catch. But elsewhere, Stone’s revisions are riveting with Piper’s desperation marked in very contemporary terms by IVF, heavy drinking and bankruptcy, each step all too publically charted through an online blog, much to the disgust of her husband, no longer a small farmer but a globe-trotting businessman.
It’s an audacious turn (Stone even changes the ending to one of ultimate self-harm rather than husband-murder) but Stone is up to it, as is Cowell and Piper who produces a career-defining range of emotional and physical pain. Altogether, highly impressive.
By Simon Stone after Federico Garcia Lorca
Her: Billie Piper
John: Brendan Cowell
Mary: Charlotte Randle
Victor: John MacMillan
Helen: Maureen Beattie
Des: Thalissa Teixeira
Direction: Simon Stone
Design: Lizzie Clachan
Costumes: Alice Babidge
Light: James Farncombe
Music and Sound: Stefan Gregory
Video: Jack Henry James
Casting: Julia Horan CDG
Yerma runs at the Young Vic Theatre to Sept 24, 2016
Review first published in Reviewsgate, Aug, 2016