The decision to have a child is something that most women will grapple with at some stage, but the notion that an individual has the right to decide what happens to their body is far from widely accepted. The politics of fertility are hugely controversial with many countries around the world still unprepared to ‘meddle’ with nature, while even here in the UK scientific intervention at any stage of a pregnancy or before can still be incredibly divisive.
In society that is still fairly traditional at heart, through the media and all forms of popular culture we are constantly bombarded by the notion that all women want marriage or a long relationship with children – you can have your career and travel the world but by the time you reach your mid-30s (at the latest) this is all we should want to do. Culturally then we’ve ended up in a position of two extremes, at one end are the women who choose not have children at all and are still seen as odd or deluded – and who didn’t applaud Jennifer Aniston’s comments on this recently – while for those who have children there is an overwhelming pressure to be a pre-defined perfect mother.
But there is a place in the middle that hasn’t been properly addressed, the women who desperately want children but can’t have them. Ben Elton considered this in his surprisingly moving 1999 novel Inconceivable but now Simon Stone’s new play at the Young Vic (which is in preview until Thursday) takes another look at exactly this issue and the all-consuming effects it has on one couple and their family. Yerma is based on the Federico Garcia Lorca 1934 play of the same name which Stone has updated and reset in modern London. Yerma and John are moving in together as the play opens, outwardly they have it all, a beautiful new apartment and a solid exciting relationship. But Yerma is 33 and begins a conversation about having a child, and as the months and years pass without success the couple are torn to pieces by her growing obsession.
This is a tragedy in a true Shakespearean sense; a protagonist with a fatal flaw is driven to absolute destruction by an inability to see beyond their immediate context. And Stone’s production is incredibly powerful, at times disconcerting, alienating and devastating, it helps the audience engage with both perspectives understanding why Yerma’s family are so alarmed by her behaviour, but maintaining incredible sympathy for the pain of the women it follows.
The action takes place in a glass box with mirrored ends designed by Lizzie Clachan, with the actors wearing microphones to allow the audience to hear them. Partially this represents the very public life Yerma is leading because, as a respected journalist, she is sharing the story of her reproductive problems with the world through her blog, which as the years pass becomes increasingly embarrassing and detrimental to her partner’s business. Like last year’s The Trial it uses a traverse style and presumably a treadmill to move sets between scenes, and having the audience face each other creates an even greater sense of the caged animal Yerma becomes, as well that notion of the whole world watching the ‘freak show’ as she lives her trauma in public. The play is also divided into chapters with some scene descriptions giving you a sense of how much time has passed and additional context which again reiterates this idea of something complex and unknowable being boiled-down into a linear story for public consumption.
Stone’s interpretation of Lorca’s work is fresh and exciting, not just in the bang up-to-date references to very modern London including Brexit and our new mayor Sadiq Khan, but also in the use of technology particularly later in the play, to heighten the drama and impact. In a particularly impressive scene Yerma spirals out of control at a festival, high on drugs and losing her grip, while Stone drenches the whole scene with rain and uses strobe lighting to emphasise her heightened and manic state of mind.
It doesn’t all work yet, occasionally the microphones muffle some of the text, particularly early on and a lot of the scene changes are quite long so there’s a lot of sitting in the dark waiting for things to happen, but this will quicken as the run continues. There’s also a potential problem of depth to the secondary characters – Yerma’s mother, sister, ex-boyfriend and younger colleague, as well as occasionally her husband John. It’s not quite clear whether they’re supposed to be fully functioning people in their own right or just become shades to Yerma as her obsession grows, in which case their lack of rounding is less important. But the production should be clearer about their purpose.
Billie Piper’s performance as Yerma absolutely crackles, dominating the production from start to finish. Piper has grown into a hugely watchable and skilled actor with a rare everyman quality that brings real audience engagement to all her roles, and amazing to think now that eyebrows were raised when she was originally cast as the Doctor’s companion. Here she initially seems incredibly relaxed, and her Yerma is a woman who has created a very nice life for herself, a bit smug maybe but with a nice committed boyfriend, a smart home and accelerating career success.
Watching Piper pull that to pieces is like watching her pull petals off a flower – so easy and careless but needlessly destructive. And initially this Yerma takes the reproductive failings in her stride, but when the cracks begin to show in her marriage she becomes more and more like a caged animal, pacing around her glass jail, helplessly and entirely hopelessly trying to fight against her own biology. The performance becomes even more thrilling in the final third as self-destruction takes over, exposing the raw intensity as her obsession and pain get the better of her. But Piper expertly manages to retain a shred of audience sympathy even in the most extreme moments, making her final scenes pitiable and moving.
Australian actor Brendan Cowell takes on the role of John, the often absent boyfriend / husband who perplexedly watches the women he knew change into something else. Initially, there’s not much too him as he floats in and out, but again this is a character that takes some time to build as we see the growing estrangement with his wife. Cowell is particularly good at showing us how John was almost railroaded into having a child he wasn’t that bothered about and how much easier it becomes for him to face the truth. But the real emotional punch comes much later as the relationship breaks down and Cowell shows us the wide-spread cost of Yerma’s obsession and the toll it’s taken on their once perfect lives.
While the other actors have little to work with, special mention for Maureen Beattie’s unaffectionate mother who gets to represent an opposite and ironic view of motherhood as a women who never really wanted the children she had. With press night to follow later this week, Yerma looks set to reignite debates around fertility politics and a woman’s control over her body. Simon Stone has created an insightful and compelling vision that gives voice to the suffering and extremity that an unrealised desire for children can create. With a standing ovation for Piper’s performance after just a few previews, this is surely one of the most unmissable performances of the summer.
Yerma is at the Young Vic until 24 September. Tickets are £10 – £35. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1