Having gasped at Angels in America, Yerma is the latest virtual experience of live theatre watched in a cinema hundreds of miles away. The two could not be of more contrast. Angels in America soars with hyper-real and verbose movement through the otherworldly. Yerma remains staunchly on earth moving through time but in the company of a couple trying for a child. Billie Piper has rightly received critical acclaim for her blistering performance as a vivacious professional woman who begins to lose her existing identity and sanity in a consuming panic over becoming a mother. The original was set in rural pre-war Spain and Frederico García Lorca described the protagonist’s desperate acts as she is increasingly shunned for not being able to have a child as a ‘tragic poem’. Written and directed by Australian born whizz kid Simon Stone ‘after’ Lorca, Stone has done a remarkable job in updating this idea to the very trendiest bits of London and the continuing pressure on women to become pregnant. In an interview he spoke of his own struggles with fertility and this is painfully clear in the words of the play.
At the Young Vic it is staged entirely in a transparent box with the audience sat on all sides. We are observing this couple as they begin on the high of buying a new house and discuss leaving one’s laptop open with porn browser on full display, all while giddily swigging champagne. Stage designer Lizzie Clachan has ensured everything is open and they are suspended for our examination with nowhere to hide. The inescapable gossip about the barren woman in a small town is lifted from 1934 Spain to 2017 London.
The heroine is a style-writer and blogger, digitally sounding off about almost anything, but increasingly about the lack of conception. Much to the desperation of those around her she is compulsive about sharing what is happening and the more graphic the writing the more clicks she gets. It is a public confessional and penance of its own making, a secular nod to the Catholic roots of the original. The whole discussion about something that should be so intensely private and yet is apparently the business of absolutely everyone else is as relevant and painful as it ever was.
Piper is truly magnificent, moving seamlessly between naturalistic and charming to erratic, finely-tuned…well hysteria. You know. Women and their hormones. Not one note is forced. Perfectly supported by an outstanding cast, the very smallest of worlds around the very biggest of ideas is illuminated beautifully. Most notable is Maureen Beattie as the protagonist’s mother who loathed pregnancy – ‘alien invasion’ is how she describes it and she still finds physical contact with her children off-putting. The titular Yerma is neither deified nor vilified, our sympathies are sometimes with her and sometimes with her exhausted partner, her saddened sister, her ex-lover and in a fleeting moment the child that does not exist.
The play loses no potency for being updated, nor for being transmitted across the invisible airwaves. Doubtless being there in person would make it a different experience but it is not a shadow of this for being viewed on a screen.