At first sight it seems perverse to set as distinctively Spanish a play as Federico Garcia Lorca’s Yerma in rural Ireland, but at least Ursula Rani Sarma’s decent and intelligent version is preferable to the melodramatic excursion into Andalusian exoticism that sometimes passes for Lorca. However, in Roisin McBrinn’s production it never has the sensuality or the visceral power one looks for: Yerma seems an oddly slight play.
As a narrative it is, in fact, fairly slight. The main character remains childless through the passage of several years of marriage (Yerma means “barren” in Spanish). Her husband Juan is much more interested in his farm and regards the absence of children as an advantage. Any element of passion in Yerma’s life is supplied by thoughts of Victor the shepherd, but as a respectable wife she does nothing. Her desperate need for a child leads ultimately to tragedy.
However, the plot enables Lorca to attack the outmoded attitudes of the Spanish Catholic Church through the narrow-mindedness of the community. The play dates from 1934; two years later, the Spanish Civil War broke out, with the Church allied with Franco’s Nationalists and Lorca an early victim of an assassination squad.
If the West Yorkshire Playhouse production, set in Ireland, lacks the bite the above suggests, it has its virtues. At times it finds an equivalent to Lorca’s poetry (he called the play “a tragic poem”), particularly in the between-scenes monologues and songs well delivered by Kate Stanley-Brennan. The more naturalistic scenes have an effective simplicity. Many scenes are static and, where more physical elements appear, they can be overdone, but the famous scene of washing clothes at the river forms a striking conclusion to the first half.
Sarma’s version slightly reduces Lorca’s original cast-list, mainly of multiple unnamed female parts, but retains the five named parts. Kate Stanley-Brennan’s Yerma is always affecting, moving from the generous enthusiasm of the first substantial scene through resignation and despair to tragedy. Antonia Thomas does well by Yerma’s friend Maria, her sympathetic naturalism contrasting with some of the more bizarre female characters, especially Juan’s two sisters, brought in to make sure that Yerma does not leave the house, two unspeaking figures in formal black, like malevolent nuns, operating in unison and only moving straight ahead or at 90-degree angles. Jonah Russell (Juan) and Peter Basham (Victor) make a modest impression, but Mia Soteriou, offering the Church’s magic as Dolores, and Helena Lymbery (the Old Woman, the Pagan Old Woman in most translations) are both strong.
Paul Wills’ design consists mainly of a looming disc suspended above the stage, but looks well enough in Paul Keogan’s atmospheric lighting, and Richard Taylor’s somewhat portentous music makes good use of the cembalom.