Yerma (Spanish for ‘barren’) is a 1934 play by Federico Garcia Lorca. It tells the story of a woman who becomes progressively more obsessed with the idea of having a child, yet remains childless despite her resolve, with devastating results. Director and playwright Simon Stone, known for his exciting, edgy, and unconventional approach to theatre classics, has taken Lorca’s Yerma and infused it with a modern feel. The end result? A play described by The Independent as a five-star “shatteringly powerful reinvention of a familiar classic”.
In Stone’s adaptation, Billie Piper takes to the stage in the title role, with Brendan Cowell playing her husband, John. We stole a few minutes with Cowell on 31 August 2017, the last day of the play’s run at the Young Vic in London, in order to gain a better understanding of the piece before the local opening of the NT Live screenings of this acclaimed production.
In yet another four-star review, The Daily Telegraph describes Stone’s Yerma as a "devastatingly powerful" but also "ripped-up" version of Lorca’s original. Reflecting on this comment, Cowell explains that it is important to consider this modern staging of Yerma whilst bearing in mind the true meaning of the word ‘revival’, as "revival means to breathe new life into something that has a firm structure". This is exactly what Stone and his cast have done. Cowell points out that even though the characters’ milieu may now be modern-day London, the company have stayed true to the themes traditionally associated with Yerma.
“All the metaphors —and definitely the structure— are still there, because Lorca’s play is a classic and you don’t want to meddle with that. I think we’ve definitely presented what Lorca wrote, but instead of meditating on farmland culture in Spain, we are meditating on 2016 London —using that, along with Lorca’s foundation, to tell a story about London now.” Their modernised Yerma still reflects on the maddening impact of the idea that time is running out, and on how easily the lines between passion and obsession get blurred if one is fixed on the unattainable.
When considering the jump from 1934 to 2016, one could perhaps argue that Stone’s reimagined Yerma (an opinionated, driven journalist) is placed on rather more equal footing with her husband, John, than Lorca’s rural Yerma is with her farmer husband, Juan. Cowell cautions, however, rural Yerma is no less of an outspoken non-conformist than her modern, urbanised counterpart.
“Yerma is quite single-minded and opinionated in the original”, says Cowell. “She might live in a conservative landscape, but we might live in a conservative landscape now, too. In the original, she is hell-bent on having this child with her husband. She is incredibly determined. She doesn’t listen to what the pagan women and the poetry women are seeing and saying about her. In a lot of ways, she has maintained her sense of independence and her kind of monomaniacal attitude towards what she wants to obtain —her quest, which everybody mocks her for in the town. So, I think the character is by no means conservative in the original, because she is fighting against constrictions from the get-go.”
While that focussed character trait has been retained and highlighted in the city-dwelling characterisation of the modern Yerma, Stone has turned farmer Juan into entrepreneur John. Listening to Cowell unpack his character, one is left with the sense that Stone’s John adds more depth to the husband character by incorporating a delicate shift in perspective. This shift gave Cowell the opportunity, through his performance, to engage with the issues John grapple with, while Yerma pursues her quest to become a mother at any cost.
When our discussion turns to John in relation to the original Juan, Cowell shares some strong feelings on the matter. “If anything, I’m probably more compassionate towards her —I want to be part of it, I try my best to be part of it— whereas I feel like Juan in the original, his babies are on the land, and Yerma’s desire seems slightly annoying to him —I feel like he is fairly disinterested in her. I feel like it is quite a modern marriage in [the current production]. He is so in love with his wife in silent adoration, but she told him to never get his hopes up for having children, so he put it to bed. I think when men put things to bed, it’s hard for them, so when they do it, they really do it, and he really gave up on that hope. Then 10 years later she goes, ‘Oh, yeah so now that we’ve got the house and careers, I want the children’, and he is just, ‘No, you told me to never hope for that, but you go ahead and do it, and I’ll support you in that, but it is your thing’. Whereas I think it is a bit more cut and dry in the original, where Juan finds it frustrating, and the more she wants it from him, the more distant he becomes.”
With these nuances forming part of the production, Stone’s Yerma explores Lorca’s relationship-focused vision by drawing on the balance of fragility and brutality, which allows the piece to reflect on the married couple’s relationship at both a micro level (one-on-one) and a macro level (the couple within their greater family, and even within modern society). In this way, society and social dynamics are brought into sharp focus.
In 1934, there was a clear understanding —endorsed by the community and by societal expectations— that once married, the natural next step for any couple would be for the wife to bear children. In the absence of such expectation being met, the community would inevitably gossip and, in extreme situations, make the wife feel like an outcast. In a modern context, though, could one argue that the perceived need to have children is more of a self-imposed obligation or obsession than it used to be, especially seeing as modern Yerma initially decides that John should not want or hope for kids before she unilaterally changes the playing field?
Cowell responds with considered insight: “Well, I think now that there are industry and fashion and social media expectations, being a mother is now a type of currency. There’s articles written about it, and there’s blogs and clothing stores. There is now an inherent failure in not getting the dream, because everyone is on Facebook going, ‘Look at my child, look at us!’. People are consciously trying to obtain that assurance —commercial-type hope— in their lives, and I think Yerma is very much affected by the fact that everybody around her has this perfect life and she —who has always been a high achiever— has failed to obtain it yet. And I get those things. I mean, I’m 41 and I feel pressure from around me. People ask, ‘What’s wrong with you?’, whereas I don’t feel like I’ve missed out on anything or am in any rush. But there is definitely, I think, still a very conservative push in this day and age in Western Culture, that you need to do that stuff, and if you don’t you’ve failed and there is that judgment.”
Cowell has previously commented that of all the productions he’s been part of, this play has the biggest effect on the audience. As he is clearly very conscious that Yerma must be approached with an understanding and awareness of the context, what, then, does Cowell feel is the impact of Stone’s staging?
“I think Simon is a genius”, Cowell shares. “He uses theatre —not to be clever, or to redefine form, or to impress audiences… He uses these structures to meditate on culture and to talk about who we are. And I think that is what storytelling is all about. He and I both grew up with women all around —he lost his father, and I was brought up by three women— and he kind of has this amazing understanding of women for a man in his early thirties. And I think the way he has drawn all the characters, is that, even though they often behave quite appallingly, all their behaviours are manifested out of love.”
In reflecting on this, Cowell draws a parallel to the idea of drama’s being informed by the gods’ messing with the lives of people, reasoning that that is what this staging of Yerma taps into. “They are all good people, they are all trying to love each other”, but they aren’t given what they want. Stone unpacks this with “intricate detail”, getting right to the core of a 15-year-old relationship with the potential to leave the audience as distraught as the unravelling couple, “because they [the audience] experience all the tiny little betrayals and hopes inside a failed love relationship —and probably a love relationship that should not have failed.”
Within this turbulent, perhaps even shattered, relationship framework, the play has also been described as “brutal yet ferociously funny” in a five-star Metro review. Engaging with the idea that such emotional devastation can be funny, Cowell notes that “when you get together with someone, it’s funny. Human behaviour is funny. Shakespeare said his tragedies were funnier than his comedies, and his comedies were more tragic than his tragedies. I think what people do in extreme situations is funny... We laugh because we know it to be true; we know it in ourselves.”
Bringing that back to the dynamic between Yerma and John, Cowell explains that “at the start of this play, the couple is sitting on each other’s laps eating pizza... poking fun at each other. Then you have the dysfunctional family, with the mother and how they speak to each other, and it is just gag after gag, and the audience buys into this incredible dysfunctional family so brilliantly. So, when it all comes tearing apart it is even more effective, because for an hour they have laughed with us.”
That, for Cowell, is where the audience impact lies. “I don’t think a tragedy can be affecting unless there has been joy before the tragedy, unless the audience has really got to know the family. There is really only one way to get to know characters and that is through joy and laughter, because laughter is a connection with the truth and a connection with a character. This family is hilarious. Their relationships are hilarious. I think their flaws are open: they are all kind of openly depressed, openly broken people instead of pretending to be perfect. They are all a little messed up and beautiful. I think [Stone] depicts that very comically.”
Cowell and Piper’s performances, along with Stone’s fresh and thought-provoking adaptation of a story reflecting on a young woman driven to the unthinkable in her desperate need to bear a child, have been hailed as an astonishing triumph. South African audiences can look forward to being stunned and affected by the NT Live recording of Yerma, to be screened at Cinema Nouveau from 23 September 2017. Bookings are open at sterkinekor.com.