Billie Piper deserves all the praise she gets as “Her” in Simon Stone’s YERMA, the Young Vic production now playing at the Park Avenue Armory. By the end she brings herself to a place of so much pain that empathy itself is taxed, and the curtain call feels, her face still trembling with emotion, like the first step of a long recovery. So do her fellow actors merit admiration, holding strong in a tight ensemble. The sets are striking, the sound and lights compelling, the space intriguingly arranged, Stone’s direction taut and impulsive.
Stipulate all that. But to say I find this contemporary rewrite of Federico García Lorca’s 1934 tragedy problematic understates the extent to which the more it sinks in, the greater my discomfort becomes. “Yerma” means “sterile” or “barren” in Spanish, and is also the name of Lorca’s protagonist, a woman in a rural culture whose husband is more intent on managing the farm than giving her a child. She seeks folk remedies to increase the chances in their few couplings and is gossiped about for her presumed barrenness and a male friendship. Her husband’s refusals lead her finally to an act of violence. Stone follows a similar arc, but it is a retrograde one, disempowering where Lorca empowers, misogynistic – a strong word, I know – where Lorca finds love.
Read no more if spoilers concern you. The original and the rewrite end differently. Lorca’s Yerma kills the husband. Stone’s Her stabs herself in the womb. Yerma is firm in who she is. Her descends into hysteria, all too literally. The husband is to blame in Lorca. In Stone, Her has a low egg count. The patriarchy in Lorca is shadowed by a parallel matriarchy. Her’s contemporary London is pure patriarchy. Lorca understands the social pressure behind Yerma’s desire. The adaptation puts it all on Her. Yerma has a name. Her is a possessive pronoun.
The best light I can put this in is that it tries to represent modern cosmopolitan culture as not having advanced at all, that gender oppression has gotten even worse than in a traditional patriarchy. Neo-liberal capitalism would emerge scathed from such an argument, but not without an audience familiar with the original, or some active engagement with it onstage. What Stone has done instead is give an appalling mis-impression of Lorca as having written a play in which a woman goes mad and kills herself because she can’t have a child. He has turned a poetic tragedy of nuance and subtlety into a standard narrative of a woman who ends up dead.
It is a shame the experience isn’t the rich one it might have been. The strange indifference of the husband in the original could, for example, be read in light of Lorca’s position as a gay artist in a society that linked procreation and identity. Such resonances are simply not possible in Stone’s rewrite. Nor, it should be said, is the production half so theatrically innovative as it looks. It’s built on the template of Ivo van Hove’s brilliant View from the Bridge, which originated at the same theater. A glass box replaces a demarcated ritual space; instead of a shower of blood there is a watery downpour; an evocative soundtrack guides us; and so on.
But go for Piper. Let her overcome you.
YERMA plays through April 21 at Park Avenue Armory. For information click here. Header image: detail from lobby display.