Yerma is an exceptional piece of theatre. This contemporary retelling of Federico Garcia Lorca’s work is a powerful performance piece. Director Simon Stone has produced a gripping 90 minutes of absorbing and highly dramatic storytelling. Broadcast from the Young Vic as part of National Theatre Live, its emotional intensity pulses through the screen. It feels immediate, simultaneously intimate and separate.
Performed, as it were, ‘in the round’, the stage is encased in glass, making for a unique and fascinating experience. Inside this glass case of emotion, Billie Piper pours out her heart and soul. She takes on the lead role, a woman who wants desperately to have a child. In short, we witness her longing for a baby become increasingly desperate, heart-rending and destructive. The emotional intensity is slowly and achingly notched up. It is like watching poison being drip-fed into the cast. Its verisimilitude only serves to intensify the characters’ emotions. The stage crew do an excellent job with the scene changes. With accomplished speed and accuracy, they manage to produce some unbelievable set changes in very short spaces of time. It helps retain the emotional investment of the audience, ably assisted by cue cards on screen which glue the narrative sections together. These scene breaks feature some impressive instrumental and acapella musical pieces that wonderfully juxtapose the subsequent actions on stage. It is another ingredient that blends beautifully into this carefully orchestrated creation.
The main component of this production is the presence of Piper and Brendan Cowell (John). The chemistry between the two actors is electrifying. They caress one another with such brutal honesty. They embrace each other with their pain and passion. An emotionally-charged relationship that lies at the centre of this play, it detonates as a series of explosive exchanges. The damage inflicted on both is regretfully raw. Stone seems to hone in on the societal expectations of motherhood. He reveals the extreme consequences of these in stark detail. Piper’s consummate performance only enhances the message that he wishes to send. It makes for a deeply unsettling watch that is, nevertheless, utterly gripping. Adding to these feelings is the superb lighting effects of James Farncombe, and the set design of Lizzie Clachan. Both elements create an atmosphere that acknowledges Piper’s descent into an obsession that completely consumes and entraps her. It works brilliantly, with some impressive close-ups adding extremely well to the suffocating nature of the environment.
Overall, Simon Stone has created a wonderful piece of theatre. The performance of Piper is remarkable. The various elements of this production, in particular the set, contribute significantly to its success. But it is Piper, and her intense relationship with Cowell on stage, that deserves the biggest plaudits here. It is a truly gripping and thoroughly engrossing show. I would highly recommend it.
Featured Image (C) Young Vic