Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1934 poetic peasant drama remains one of the most disturbing and challenging plays in the modern repertoire, and it’s no great criticism of Helena Kaut-Howson’s revival, starring Kathryn Hunter at the persistently adventurous Arcola Theatre, to say that the production fascinates and disappoints in equal measure.

A tragedy of childlessness, Yerma tells the story of a woman whose maternal instincts are thwarted in a loveless marriage. Her barrenness is a result of an erotic mismatch with the dour shepherd Juan and she drifts into reverie, fantasy and finally madness in a series of extraordinary encounters with other girls and mothers, a tribe of vigorous, laundry-beating washerwomen and a fertility rite in the fields that combines pagan and Christian elements in a dance of despair and death.

In quieter moments, Kathryn Hunter summons a poignancy that might convince you she was “Yerma la Douce”, but this wonderful character actress can never really release the pile-driving charge of abandonment the role requires. Also, while Kaut-Howson creates a perfectly credible context of realism and ritual for the play, you do sense that faint embarrassment of actors not quite inhabiting their own performance style.

A programme note states that the idea was to follow, or invoke, the “ecstatic” theatre of companies such as the Song of the Goat and Gardzienice. It’s a worthy ambition to bring this sort of theatre to Lorca, but the show is not really “ecstatic” enough, even though the fine translation of Frank McGuinness doesn’t shirk the rhapsodic prose and rhythmic ululations of this strange and deeply felt drama.

One of the great versions of this play, Nuria Espert’s famous 1970s performance, directed by Victor Garcia, was placed in, on and around a giant trampoline that seemed to heave and beat with the very heart and sexuality of the leading actress. Hunter makes the great riffs about the imminent child, the sleeping shepherd, and her own milk-stopped breasts somehow smaller and fiddlier than they should be; I hope it is not too ungallant to suggest that her comparative maturity makes the conflict of urges, sexual and maternal, seem a little preposterous.

Still, the staging makes good use of the space around the three industrial black steel girders. There’s appropriate, African music by Tayo Akinbode, and clever lighting by Gerry Jenkinson. The hapless Juan is darkly played by Antonio Gil Martinez, while Vincenzo Nicoli suggests an erotic world elsewhere as the bullish, powerfully built Victor. And the climactic pilgrimage is a colourful swirl of masks, candles and doom-laden foreboding before the symbolic act of destruction.

- Michael Coveney