How should you treat a play which is a classic in another language and another culture? What is the difference between “translated by”, “adapted by” and “a new version by”? How far must you go before it’s more honest to claim the play as your own, as Blake Morrison did with We Are Three Sisters?
I have seen two “new versions” of Yerma this year. Federico Garcia Lorca’s classic deals with the tragic consequences of a wife’s determination to bear children. She is confronted by her husband’s uncaring materialism, but also by a village society that despises her childless state: “Yerma” means “barren” in Spanish. Like many of Lorca’s plays Yerma is an attack on the stultifying effect of conventional morality.
The play poses at least two major problems to a 21st century British company: the sense of a Spanish village community can ring false in translation and, to create that sense of community, Lorca deployed a huge cast, only five named characters, but 30 others, some only extras, others very important. Ursula Rani Sarma’s version at West Yorkshire Playhouse used an equivalent community (rural Ireland) and used only nine actors, with multiple doubling.
Anthony Weigh’s version for Hull Truck and the Gate Theatre takes a more drastic approach. Only the five named characters appear, plus a boy whose function is as much symbolic as individual. So there is no community to revolt against or be stifled by; the psychological drama is all. Director Natalie Abrahami seems further to distance any sense of community by choosing a variety of accents. Characters, especially Yerma, seem almost unaware of the world they’ve landed in, words and phrases constantly qualified by doubts about whether that’s what “they” use.
The play proceeds by short scenes until a final effective confrontation between Yerma’s longing for love and motherhood and her husband Juan’s uncomprehending materialism. Lovers of Lorca looking forward to seeing a favourite scene will almost certainly be disappointed. It’s difficult to accept this as even a “version” of Yerma, but as a variant on the same subject it has a certain stylised poetic impact. Ty Glaser’s Yerma, giddy and incessantly giggly, begins like a public school-girl on the first day of the Long Hols, but impresses more as the play progresses, uncomprehending, credulous and tortured. Alison O’Donnell as Maria, Yerma’s friend who produces child after child, has to provide all the local colour and plays the part up to the hilt. Hasan Dixon (Juan) and Ross Anderson (Victor, the butcher – attracted and attractive to Yerma) are required to give rather stolid performances, but Sharon Duncan-Brewster’s Dolores, the wise woman, is suitably exotic.
I am aware of Yerma only through other earlier translations/versions, so certainty is impossible, but I suspect that Federico Garcia Lorca wouldn’t recognise his play or his characters.