I never really got Yerma. Simon Stone’s version, I mean. I went to see it at the cinema in Bristol after it returned to the Young Vic for its second run. Billie Piper had just finished stabbing herself over her inability to conceive a child and I was waiting in line for the loo. The lady in front of me turned around and breathlessly gushed: ‘Wasn’t that brilliant? Isn’t she just EVERYWOMAN?!’ Taken by surprise midway through silently considering my own maternal ambivalence (to use Sheila Heti’s phrase), I didn’t know what to reply. So I stared at her. For too long. And then her face moved and I realised I’d hurt her with my crazy staring so I blurted out something praiseworthy about the set design, which seemed to make things worse, and then carried on praying for a cubical to open up.
Hang on, no. That wasn’t the story. I meant to say:
I never really got Yerma. Simon Stone’s version, I mean. I went to see it at the cinema in Bristol after it returned to the Young Vic for the second time. Billie Piper had just won the Olivier for Best Actress and everyone had declared it a modern classic of a production. Yerma, for me, fell into the category of theatre I intellectually admire but don’t, on a more primal level, like. Even writing that, I feel guilty, a little voice saying: what’s your problem? Why can’t you just enjoy it like everyone else? That same exasperated voice whispered to me in the cinema too, leading to me working overtime trying to understand what other people got from it. I thought, for instance, that Piper really won that Olivier. That is definitely an Olivier Award-winning performance, I thought in a detached manner, as I watched the snot run down her face. But maybe because I am – according to loo queue logic – not ‘everywoman’, I didn’t genuinely ‘get it’.
Sorry, we’re talking about the wrong play here. I’ll get back to the point.
I really got Medea. Simon Stone’s version, I mean. I went to see it at the Barbican in London after it had premiered in the Netherlands in 2014, and played in Madrid in 2018. Stone’s Medea and Yerma have a lot in common. In one, Yerma, a woman’s insatiable, overwhelming love for a never-born child (alternately, you could think of it as grief, but I think it’s actually an unanswered love that drives everything) leads her to violently eliminate herself. In the other, Medea, a woman’s insatiable, overwhelming love for the two children her husband is about to take away from her (alternately, you could think of it as hatred for her husband but, again, it’s a stratospherically huge love that underpins the tragedy) leads her to singlehandedly delete herself, the children and her husband’s new in-laws from the world.
There are other similarities as well. In his modern adaptations of Lorca and Euripides, Stone’s tragic characters are wealthy, white, middle-class and over-educated. Piper played some variant of a lifestyle journalist with a penchant for avocado on toast. The superb Marieke Heebink, as Anna, plays a scientist and doctor who’s seen her career and academic brilliance stymied by raising children while her husband, an idiot in comparison, has flourished, in part by having his wife correct the mistakes in his research.
The upper-middle wankdom of the couple in Yerma fed into my general lack of sympathy for them (although, I’m willing to accept that maybe this was partly a case of over-identifying followed by self-loathing). Where the family in Medea are concerned, I perhaps have too much sympathy. Anna is a woman I could easily be friends with (and, to an extent, am friends with), the woman trying to balance her own creativity and ambition with being a mother, a wife, a lover. At my most uncharitable, I saw the modern Yerma as a case of someone who already had more lines completed on the bingo card than any of their neighbours, but couldn’t rest until the whole sheet was filled out. This isn’t actually quite true, the ‘everything’ Piper’s character has are mainly contemporary, capitalist-driven markers of success: the address, the job, the clothes, the lifestyle. You could read the whole set-up as a desperate yearning for something more fundamentally meaningful, a yearning to be human and to love.
Sorry, another digression. Back to the point.
Medea, or the tale of Anna, feels like the story of someone who keeps losing things. Her numbers stopped being called long ago, and when they occasionally are, there’s less and less hope of completing a line. Committed to a psychiatric ward, she’s lost her career. With him engaged to a younger woman, she’s lost her husband. And now she’s about to lose her children too, as they’re destined to fly to China with her ex-husband and his new partner. She’s also lost her mind, her sense of self, and her purpose in being alive and present.
Whether or not I felt a stronger sense of sympathy with Anna than with the woman in Yerma is not really the point. Self-identification isn’t the point either, because the female Piper plays is not ‘everywoman’ and neither is Anna, and neither am I.
If there is, however, a universalising quality present in Medea – or that sensation that a work of art has called and your heart has responded – it’s not anything as simple as ‘I can relate to the struggle of combining career with childcare’. It’s found in its dramatizing of entrapment or the classic ‘nowhere else to turn’ scenario. There’s a pervasive stench of exhaustion running though everything, the exhaustion of trying to hold together love, sex, family, jobs, the general overload of contemporary living accoutrements, even just the repeated need to clean, feed and tend to your own body. The exhaustion of trying to stay on track, but always discovering you’ve taken a diversion. It’s an exhaustion that, statistically, females feel more than men – the so-called ‘mental load’ – but it’s also an exhaustion shared by anyone who’s ever tried desperately to stay afloat despite not just the metaphorical waters rising, but multiple objects being thrown at their panting head, the strange absence of friends in lifeboats and the forecasted typhoon scheduled for tomorrow.
Anna returns from hospital with a painting. In it, all the animals from Noah’s Ark, including the olive branch-bearing dove, are drowning in the floodwaters. They’re not just the ones that didn’t make it to the boat, but all the animals. Meaning: there is no ark and there is no salivation. One of Stone’s many masterstrokes lies in minimalizing the brutality of the murders, the bloody violence Medea is famous for is almost immaterial here, because it’s not how she does it but why. In the place of stage gore is a pile of black ashes or dark soil (it’s hard to tell which). The children, instead of being slaughtered, are symbolically buried in the earth, then turned to ash in the flames of a fire. Because this is what happens when hope ceases to exist: disintegration into dust.
Medea was on at the Barbican from 6th to 9th March. Read Exeunt’s original review of Yerma here.