The distance between the strict morality of rural Spain in the 1930s and cosmopolitan, contemporary London seems very great but it is bridged in a blink in Simon Stone’s brilliantly effective version of Yerma. Thanks to the cleverness of his own adaptation and a devastating central performance by Billie Piper, it blows the dust off Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1934 original and turns it into a challenging play for today.
In seven swift chapters, from Conception to Coming Home, announced on screens above the narrow stage, it charts the way a longing for a child becomes an obsession which destroys the heroine’s life – and the lives of those around her. When we first meet Piper’s ‘Her’ she seems destined to be the girl who gets it all. Sprawled on the white carpet of Lizzie Clachan’s glass-boxed setting, she has just moved into her new home with John, the man she loves (Brendan Cowell) when she conceives the idea that she wants a baby.
She’s a much-lauded blogger, he’s a successful businessman. It seems that all that it will take is a celebratory smashing of the pill pack for their dreams to be realised. But it’s not to be, and as we follow their lives through five agonising years of a ticking biological clock, their world disintegrates as her failure to get pregnant becomes the one salient truth of their lives. "We used to have a life. We have each other and my empty womb," she cries on their wedding night.
In Lorca’s original, Yerma’s desperation is – at least in part – related to the Catholic society in which she lives. She has no meaning unless she has a child. The smartness of Stone’s rewriting is that it suggests that you don’t need societal pressures to become maddened by a longing for a baby; once a woman succumbs to that sense of need, her body’s desires can take over.
Its other strength is that Yerma is not portrayed as some kind of doomed saint. Her desire to continue to describe her lowest feelings on her blog – in search of internet fame as much as sympathy – and her resolute refusal to give up her solipsistic view of the world or even consider adoption, all count against her. Yet it is impossible not to share her agony.
Piper is superb at conveying it. Her performance moves from the laughingly flirtatious to the absolutely distraught in incremental and beautifully described steps. By the close, she is unafraid to appear ugly and desperate; but en route what is impressive is the way the light seems to die from her eyes.
There’s terrific support too from Maureen Beattie as her dour, distant mother and Charlotte Randle as her fertile sister. Cowell copes effectively with the thankless task of being the understanding husband – though I would have liked to see a little more anger and viciousness in him.
My one real reservation, though, is that set. It is effective intellectually, pinioning the action in a technological other world, and allowing for some remarkable effects. But emotionally, it distances the audience from the action – particularly since it requires the actors’ words to be communicated via microphones.
Piper’s access to feeling is so immediate and the adaptation so urgent that I would have prefered to see it without a wall of glass.
Yerma runs at the Young Vic until 24 September.