a review by Tom Goss
Since March 2020, global audiences have been starved of live performance. When the world stopped moving, an outstanding piece of theatre was put online by the National Theatre. The Young Vic theatre in London, saw a reworking of Lorca’s 1934 play ‘Yerma’. The original play was intended to be a story of the earth, nature, fertility and the impact that failed pregnancies have on a working-class, young Spanish couple in the 1930s. In the final moments of the play, the female lead named ‘Yerma’ (the translation of barren) kills her husband in a burst of frustration.
However, in Simon Stone’s 2017 adaption, the play focuses on the story of a middle-class couple from the evening they move into their new house in London. The female lead that remains unnamed throughout the whole performance, played by Billie Piper, expresses to her boyfriend her desire to have a child. Both characters are in the middle of extremely successful and stable careers and John (played by Brenden Cowell) agrees. Over the course of the next few months, John’s efforts to have a child become less committed. As a result of the travelling provided by his work and his girlfriend’s growing obsession to have a child, John turns to alcohol eventually contributing to him cheating on Billie Piper’s character. The years pass and the obsession becomes stronger and far more deeply rooted which the actress expresses in her character’s online blog. A forum attracting many readers each day. The couple get married and turn to IVF which they eventually spend a quarter of a million pounds on, ruining both lead characters lives. The honesty with which the female lead writes with creates a strain on their marriage and her relationship with her mother and sister. Her blog reveals that she was satisfied when her sister had a miscarriage. In addition, she states that she had developed a loathing for other people’s children. Consequently, in the dying moments of Stone’s play, John informs her that they are sixty thousand pounds in debt and that he was leaving her. Billie Piper’s character finds a knife and threatens to stab him before he escapes and kills herself with a stab to the womb. A symbolic ending.
After so many changes in the story, it begs the question whether Simon Stone is indeed the adaptor or, in fact, the writer. Stone even changed the name of the protagonist to ‘her’ rather than ‘Yerma’ like the original to demonstrate the universal possibility of infertility. Many would argue that Stone is indeed the writer as the script was written as an outcome from month long workshopping sessions with the cast. Piper recalls that she asked Stone, “When are we finally going to get the script?” only a few weeks before the show began. Stone directed the piece and wanted each performance to be unique which is why little staging was confirmed in rehearsal. The choices made in rehearsal and the revolutionary techniques that were used evoked an incredible emotional response from the audience. The acting was naturalistic and pure enabling a connection between the characters onstage and the audience.
Overall, the play was a phenomenal piece of work with Billie Piper stealing the show. The criticism she has received for perhaps ‘living the role’ is undeserved as it was a run of performances that told a universal story with flair. The themes explored in the play were of such importance that Piper’s delivery was of paramount importance. Finally, the play is arguably one of the most moving pieces of theatre in the last decade.