Yerma is an astonishing portrayal of longing and desperation that left me with knotted guts and a buzzing brain. Billie Piper turns in a blindingly good performance as Her, a woman eaten from the inside out by her desire for a child. Piper charts how a passing fancy – “you don’t even like children” – becomes all-consuming, gradually destroying her work, her friendships, her family, her marriage and her life.
What Simon Stone has done brilliantly is transport Lorca’s play into the 21st century. In the original, Yerma’s desire for a baby is deeply rooted in conservative Catholicism, in a time when a woman’s only purpose was to be a wife and a mother. In this version, Piper’s character is a successful journalist and blogger, with a seemingly rich and comfortable life; the play opens with her and her partner (Brendan Cowell) drinking champagne in their new house. Stone’s script and direction deftly show how the diminishing chances of conceiving diminish the life they share, shrinking their world to ovulation cycles, calendars and desperate hope.
The production plays out in seven “chapters”, each with a foreboding synopsis above the stage, emphasising the futility of their attempts to conceive and the inevitability of the tragic ending. The tension in Stone’s production is insidious; it creeps up on you even in the apparently relaxed scenes, leaving a choking sense of the impending tragedy. He also plays extremely well on the misplaced hope – that this time things will work out, that this round of IVF is the one that will take, that they’ve just got to wait…
Cowell is fantastic as the go-getting husband, who only wants a child because he wants his wife to be happy. His wife’s biological drive to conceive gradually squeezes all the joy from their relationship, turning sex into a chore and reducing his role to sperm-provider. Maureen Beattie plays the unsympathetic mother with real humanity – motherhood doesn’t magically transform personalities or subsume long-held ambitions. The relationship between the two sisters, one who can get pregnant and one who can’t, is painfully drawn, and Charlotte Randle and Piper capture a fascinating and truthful sibling dynamic.
This play belongs to Piper, though. She plays Her as a woman gradually being eroded by her longing for a baby – each day, each period, each round of IVF, each fight with her husband, each new friend who falls pregnant washes away a little bit more of her sense of self, until there’s nothing left but an emptiness. Lizzie Clachan’s stark but stunning box-set lets the characters pace like animals in the zoo, trapped and helpless. The harsh lighting (James Farncombe) and deeply unsettling music (Stefan Gregory) emphasise Her unravelling. It’s a sensational performance from Piper, though, and the nuances she brings to the character make us feel for her all the more. She is not perfect by any means, and her flaws make her all the more human and her pain all the more real.
Yerma is on until 24th September 2016. Click here for more information.