Brendan Cowell and Billie Piper in Yerma, © Johan Persson
Yerma by Simon Stone after Gabriel Garcia Lorca – NT Live from the Young Vic
Simon Stone’s production of Yerma comes garlanded with Olivier Awards for Best Revival and for Billie Piper as the central character driven to desperation and destruction by her inability to have children. As an NT live broadcast to cinemas, it has been popular enough for repeat screenings. So what is the experience of seeing pretty much the hottest ticket in town like at one remove?
First of all, there is no question that Piper’s performance is a triumph. She really comes of age as a stage actor in the role, inhabiting it to the full. She is entirely convincing as a woman who starting with the apparently reasonable expectation that she might have children, sees her life come apart in every way as she discovers, excruciating step by excruciating step, that she cannot. Piper portrays complete mental disintegration while keeping the audience involved and sympathetic, beyond the point where her actions can no longer be justified. Unlike the rest of the cast, Piper’s character does not have a name – she is simply ‘Her’ – and Piper makes the universality of her experiences concept harsh and real. The supporting cast is strong, but it is Maureen Beattie as her contrary mother, Helen, who threatens to steal every scene in which she has a line.
The name of the main character – ‘Yerma’ meaning ‘barren’ in Spanish is just one of the many, substantial changes made by Simon Stone, who has adapted Lorca very freely, relocating it to a city like London, right now. In a short film shown before the screening, Stone gives the impression that his changes were designed to make the lyricism of the original more manageable for contemporary audiences, but has gone far beyond that, even changing the ending. For those who do not know the original it is hard to weigh the decisions he has made, but taken on its own terms his version is powerful. The action is very explicitly contemporary, showing how infertility can be as much of a curse now as it was in rural 1930s Spain. Stone’s text is too insistent on its 2010s setting: blogging, internet porn, female body hair, millennial sex, gender experiences in the work place, abortion, iPhones, internet privacy, and work-life balance all receive stage time. He also threatens to turn Yerma into a play about IVF, which would miss Lorca’s point. However, his version is, on the whole, a cleverly written, bold success.
The cinema experience has its downsides. The play is presented with inter-titles announcing the time period for each new scene. It is not clear whether these are just for the cinema, or whether the Young Vic audience sees them too, so we feel divorced from the theatrical experience. Because these are cut, we also seem to miss small pieces of the action on stage, for example coming back into the play’s final scene after it has apparently started. The glass box set is not ideal for broadcast, and its spatial properties do not translate to the screen – a problem with many live broadcasts, which struggle to replicate the physical presence of a stage set. There are also sound issues in some scenes: because the incidental music has the same dynamics as it would for a film it dominates the dialogue, which sounds much flatter and is indistinguishable when characters speak over one another.
Yerma is a visceral experience – an emotionally demanding spiral of despair and alienation, which rings much truer than we would like to admit. The NT live screening removes some of the viscerality, but it is a tribute to the production that much of its power and impact in the theatre makes it through the cinema screen.