A woman puts off having children so she can focus on her career. Once she finally gives in to some mysterious primal urge and decides to have a baby, she discovers it may not be that easy. As she and her husband struggle through the taxing process of trying to conceive, the woman must deal with the world around her, which must surely be mocking her by constantly throwing other people’s fertility at her. What happens next? Could anyone escape this kind of torture unscathed? Simon Stone’s Yerma has the answers in this National Theatre production broadcast live from the Young Vic.
The play, reworked by director Stone after Federico García Lorca’s 1934 work of the same title, exposes the cracks that become visible when relationships are put under severe strain. This 21st century version of the story is set in London, and sees its characters try to make sense of life’s twists and turns. A successful, upwardly mobile couple (Billie Piper and Brendan Cowell) discuss the gentrification of the neighbourhood they’ve just bought a house in, while the woman’s sister makes excuses for her philandering husband, and the sisters’ mother (Maureen Beattie) bulldozes her way through the delicate terrain of her daughters’ feelings.
The woman at the centre of it all, who’s known only as ‘She’, suffers the slow but unceasing ravages of infertility. She forces herself to smile and react happily when her sister falls pregnant (after actively having tried not to, it seems), and patiently listens to her young assistant’s tales of debauched nights that invariably end in a trip to the chemist’s for an emergency contraceptive. When her mother expounds on how horrible her own pregnancies were, the woman suffers mostly in bristling silence.
The actors exist on the in-the-round stage in a kind of bubble, as two sides of the stage are closed off by glass panels. This design serves to cement the characters’ sense of captivity from the start, and it also allows for some creative filming to be done when one actor’s face pops up as a reflection in the glass panel next to the actor in focus. Actors’ voices reverberate off the walls as their characters get into heated arguments about the more harrowing details of their lives.
The virtually bare stage is almost offensive in its stark minimalism, and it is only filled (to overflowing) with props and furniture on one occasion: When a baby appears in the lead character’s life. As soon as that moment ends, the scene changes back to an empty white room, and the magic is gone.
Stone’s modern dialogue lends itself to naturalistic performances, and that’s what the audience gets. Piper is utterly convincing as the successful career woman desperate for a child. Her interpretation is electrifying throughout, and her character’s progression from mostly-fulfilled thirty-something to the heartbroken shadow of a woman she becomes, is very well conceived.
Cowell brings a kind of brute energy to the role of the fast-talking, heavy-drinking husband. He manages to bring to life a complicated character who tries to support his wife without losing himself in the process. Beattie also deserves praise for her turn as the mother, an old-school feminist and academic whose straightforward manner is the source of much of the comic relief to be found in the piece. ‘It’s been very entertaining watching your life,’ she tells her struggling daughter. ‘Especially your twenties; they were a riot.’
It’s the mark of a good story that it draws one in, however far removed the subject matter may be from one’s own lived experience. You may not have had trouble starting a family. The very idea of having children may leave you cold. You may, in fact, not possess a uterus at all, but Yerma will force you to see a world positively overflowing with happy little bundles of joy from the perspective of a woman being slowly driven mad by her own body.
Yerma is part of the current National Theatre Live season, and can be seen at Cinema Nouveau at the V&A Waterfront on the 23rd, 24th, 27th, and 28th of September. Tickets are available at www.sterkinekor.co.za.