Obsession is one of the inexplicable tics that make or mar our species. It builds pyramids, cracks mathematical problems, puts man on the moon. In modern times this obsession has contracted towards the self: self-actualisation, self-promotion, self-destruction. But the oldest obsession – and the most biologically sound – is the idea of reproduction. It's curious that in this age of science and common sense our world can still be governed by invisible things that do not yet exist. And in some cases, never will.
Simon Stone’s revelatory production of The Wild Duck proved how the careless shattering of delusions can be as devastating as the puncturing of an astronaut’s helmet. Here in his reboot of Lorca’s 1934 Yerma (‘Barren’) he tackles the idea of hope, inverting its traditional benevolence and exploring how an over-reliance on it can lead to tragedy, total & absolute.
Yerma begins, like a nature documentary, with a nesting. Its protagonist is a lifestyle journalist celebrating the purchase of a house with her businessman boyfriend. In the giddiness of housewarming she uncharacteristically takes to the idea of starting a family. Over the course of 5 years, pin-balling between distant mother, downtrodden sister and tepid ex, she suffers twists and turns, mistakes and make-ups, promise and despair. We see her life leak away through the tiny hole of one simple idea. It is the bleak echo of unanswered hope that gets her – and us – in the end. After 100 minutes much more than the nest has been abandoned.
Lizzie Clachan’s absorbing, aquarial set is reminiscent of Stone’s Ibsen adaptation, and here
works equal wonders. At first it reveals a sea of reflected and opposing faces, the other half of the audience just visible beyond twelve great sheets of plate glass. The clever traverse stage and capable work of its crew smoothly conjures wedding scenes, festival fields, wintry gardens, an abandoned home, all with unnerving ease. The glory of the microphone work here is capturing
every breath, hesitation and half-expressed thought. Set-changes are drenched in music that drains from piping a cappella to static grime. It is the sound of a dream spiralling into bewildered fury.
There can be no more jibes about pop stardom when it comes to Billie Piper now. It is her show, her soul there on stage. At more than one moment you find yourself wondering how she manages to return from the precipice she takes herself to each night. Her vibrant character is gradually stripped, layer by excruciating layer, right down to the husk. Piper plays with every sigh, chuckle, murmur and sob - every utterance oozes with subtext. When she wisecracks you dutifully fall a little in love. When she screams she seems to be regurgitating a malevolent spirit. When she mindlessly chews her jacket she displays the tendrils of madness more potently than any pair of yellow stockings ever did for Shakespeare. Over the course of six chapters you really do feel as if you are watching a beloved friend fall apart. It is harrowing, and heartbreaking, and here offers something that television, for all its current brilliance, cannot. You come to the theatre for this kind of connection.
The rapidity and fluidity of the company under Stone’s leadership is a pleasure to behold. The unified writing and directing, not always the best of friends, feed perfectly off of each other. Moments land hard and true: the symbolic destruction of contraception foiled by a plush carpet; a comically reluctant hug between mother and daughter; a terrifying drug-fuelled scene where strangers are mistaken for loved ones, even as the loved ones themselves slip away. Maureen Beattie is a deadpan delight as the protagonist’s mother, extolling the attractions of a childless life. Thalissa Teixeira is striking as an office junior for whom remembering whether or not she had sex – and the quick-fix to remedy it – is as casual as ordering a Deliveroo. And Brendan Cowell, the partner, husband, would-be father, is wryly charismatic as the main character’s counterpoint. His loyalties are kept interestingly foggy while several parallels to the protagonist’s plight are hinted at – man’s paternal obsession with work, a debilitating reliance on pornography, half-remembered infidelities. One of the many tragedies jostling for attention here is our inability to understand the hormonal lives of the opposite sex.
Stone’s Yerma proves again that old stories can have new life breathed into them to brilliant and chilling effect. The advantage of his adaptation is tackling some of the many questions of our age. What becomes of love when Dionysian pleasure is on continuous offer? What of children when we pride ourselves on social compassion but are still driven by the need to replicate? And what of ourselves, at once bound to others and repelled by their unknowability? As in many great tragedies, here we see a person torn apart by an idea. That she can move from procreational
sceptic (“Babies…they’re completely self-centred. Like a retarded cat,”) to a woman who hasn’t slept for three days, clawing at the earth and searching for her imaginary child is not theatrical. It is life. And this production swells with it.
So much so that it was a relief to escape the auditorium. Outside, a man and a woman from the audience sat and held each other, silently sobbing. Each will take their own epilogue home with them. See this and take yours.