“You know that film Alien? Well that’s a very accurate representation of what my pregnancies felt like. Waiting, horrified, feeling this creature growing inside me, until the day when it forced itself out of me, screaming, demanding, expecting me to satisfy its every whim, a parasitic succubus“
Back at the Young Vic until the end of August (2017) when it will be screened to cinemas comes Australian director Simon Stone’s adaptation and direction of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Yerma, the story of a woman obsessed with becoming pregnant which ends tragically. The main attraction here is not purely the admirable script but the acting of Billie Piper in the lead role. Her performance scooped the best actress awards at the Critics Circle, Evening Standard and Olivier Awards this year. Those who haven’t managed to buy a ticket at the sold out Young Vic may secure one for the National Theatre Live broadcast to cinemas worldwide, to be recorded on 31st August, and shown then in the UK or thereafter in other countries.
The play opens in a part of London where the character called only Her (Billie Piper) and her husband John (the excellent and progressively ambivalent Brendan Cowell) are celebrating buying their first home together. Now they have three floors and room for a child. She is thirty three and he is in his early forties. She works as an editor for a magazine and publishes a widely read blog. He started up his own business with her backing and frequently travels abroad on business and envisages the day when they will be able to drink Dom Perignon. They are planning their future together and apart from his explicit pornographic interest, everything in the garden seems lovely. They discuss conception and he symbolically treads her contraceptive pills into the carpet to mark this new direction.
Lizzie Clachan’s set is arranged on the traverse at the Young Vic with the audience seated either side. The actors are behind glass walls on all sides creating the effect of them living in a goldfish bowl. Between scenes and to delineate the marked up passing of time, there is loud mouth music, sometimes classical.
The actors are miked up because otherwise they would be difficult to hear behind the glass. What breaks down first is communication between John and Her as he responds to the pressure to conceive a child by missing crucial ovulation dates and losing interest in spontaneous sex. Circumstances underline the unfairness of this inability to conceive. Her sister Mary (Charlotte Randle) gets pregnant in an unstable marriage and a former boyfriend Victor (John MacMillan) calls reminding her when she was once pregnant but chose to terminate.
Where this modern version of Lorca’s 1930s tale deviates is in the recourse to technology. Whereas in the original Yerma’s husband didn’t show any interest in having a child, John refuses to undergo the tests for his sperm motility and without those, the hospital will go no further in assisting Her. Like the original Yerma who refused to conceive elsewhere on grounds of honour, she refuses to look at alternatives but instead, eventually embarks on a programme of IVF after John gets tested. Three rounds is the standard for National Health funded infertility treatment. After that they have to pay privately. All these events are recorded for the blog, even her violent feelings and rage about her sister getting pregnant again.
The deterioration of John and Her’s marriage is recorded in detail as he cannot help her with the one thing she wants: a child in her womb, and blame takes hold replacing the intimacy they once had. He avoids her, she thinks it is his fault. It is a tragedy of Greek proportions. The acting of the visceral, searing grief is outstanding and we witness Her losing her sanity, as convinced that she might conceive with another, she heads to Glastonbury for desperate, random sexual encounters.
There are of course many questions about the role of women as mere carriers of children, from the criticism our childless Prime Minister Theresa May faced, on limiting inherited property to £100,000, to the discussion around the television serialisation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale where we see the ultimate extension to IVF for the wealthy. Those of us who have borne children cannot truly know the agony of infertility. There are questions too about marriage and the number of divorces caused by, and attributed to, childlessness.
But Simon Stone’s play doesn’t address those. Instead he looks at the impact on a once beautiful, intelligent and loving woman who is unable to fulfill the imperatives of her biological ticking clock and for whom all other existence and purpose becomes meaningless. It is this unhinging for which Billie Piper deserves those “best actress” awards for demonstrating agony on stage and making us feel her distress. Lorca was a poet before he was a playwright and I read recently a quote by him about theatre which says more than I can about Billie Piper’s performance in Yerma, “Theatre is poetry that rises from the book and becomes human enough to talk and shout, weep and despair.” The imagery of those words rising can be found at the Young Vic this August and in cinemas worldwide.
Written by Federico Garcia Lorca
Adapted and Directed by Simon Stone
Director: Simon Stone
Designer: Lizzie Clachan
Sound Designer: Stefan Gregory
Video: Jack Henry James
Running Time: One hour 50 minutes
without an interval
Closed at the Young Vic on
30th August 2017
Streaming on NT at Home
The Young Vic
London SE1 8LZ
Phone: 020 7922 2922
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge
at the Young Vic
on 31st July 2017