FringeReview UK 2016
With a cast led explosively by Billie Piper and a striking set Lizzie Clachan has framed in a Perspex glass box, Simon Stone directs and auteurs his version of Lorca’s 1934 Yerma at the Young Vic. The couple’s privileged lifestyle and the glassed-in obsession heighten this transposition to 2016 with an almost completely rewritten script.
Simon Stone directs and auteurs his version of Lorca’s 1934 Yerma at the Young Vic, with a cast led explosively by Billie Piper and a striking set Lizzie Clachan has framed in a Perspex glass box. Inside we’re treated to boxed-up interiors, vernal grass and a tree that suddenly seres into barrenness. Yerma means barren and the couple’s privileged lifestyle and the glassed-in obsession heighten this transposition to 2016 with an almost completely rewritten script.
Almost, not quite. At points Stone allows the Catholic agrarian original to break through, sometimes almost incongruously, as when Piper’s character, named ‘Her’ breaks into a riff on the Virgin Mary. There’s much to be accessed too in Stefan Gregory’s music, built around Vivaldi’s Gloria, and bits of re-hashed Arvo Part: the music’s curiously sacramental in an avowedly secular re-write. Lorca too was secular, though his gestures to Catholicism arise naturally from the rural setting.
Here, the need for confession doesn’t move to the Other Boleyn Girl route recently used at this house’s Measure for Measure. Piper’s transparent character is a blogger and lifestyle writer finally married to a bemused businessman John, Australian Brendan Cowell. Many will object to this update, and indeed the original’s more powerful still with a cultural amplitude and claustrophobia rendering it more inexorable, more tragic, and the yerma more connected as something that casts out the heroine from womanhood. But Stone’s rewrite shudders with its own valency: a free variation on these dislocated times.
Piper’s move from professionally, sexually confident writer to self-immolating howl is controlled and shocking. She’s excelled before but nothing has prepared for this devastating performance: Piper’s naked concavity, a woman collapsing on herself because she can’t conceive, is a dilemma still hardly tackled. It might seem too un-dramatic, but here it defines drama. It elicits from Piper a break-out wildness, a grieving as incandescent as anything in Greek Tragedy, connecting with Lorca beyond Stone.
The stripping away of first buoyancy, then confidence then frank envy of her sister’s fertility (or glee at her miscarriage) is reprised in her blogs, egged on by Thalisa Teixeira’s ultimately more confident Des, effectively Her’s protégé. ‘Oh yes, I did have sex last night’ she remarks as the man Des slept with, one of ten fit but blurry candidates, texts in. Jokes of Brexit, and Sadiq Khan ‘but we’ll miss Boris’ are trailed for laughs, and if Stone releases the text for publication one imagines it’ll be shorn of too-fleeting contemporary references – in Stone’s spirit these can be reinvented.
We begin drunkenly with Cowell’s superb blokey puzzlement, his affable if reluctant drag to paternity made bearable by Piper’s explicit come-ons, but trammelled by her knowledge of his use of porn: he’s not concentrating. Piper journeys from thirty-three to forty-one in a hollow curve of self-reduction, a less-ness of John’s further spells from home, the gulf widening as his own reluctance to engage with Piper’s emotions further alienates her.
Punctuating this is Charlotte Randle’s sympathetic and forgiving sister Mary, anxious to alleviate where she can, and a fine academically dessicated mother played by Maureen Beattie, whose reluctance to even touch: Piper suggest sin this text something almost contagious in psycho-sexual barrenness – she refers to bearing children as alien beings, and particularly disliked Her coming forth. John Macmillan’s warmer Victor an old flame with whom Her did conceive at twenty-four only to have a termination, manages to convey his lingering love and proper disengagement to Piper’s advances: he’s made her pregnant once, why not again? The characters too pop up in a rubber-booted rain scene at a Glastonbury soak-in where Piper has undifferentiated cagoule-clad sex with the two male protagonists – the actors masquerading here as strangers – whom she thinks are the characters they usually are.
This isn’t simply Piper’s – or stone’s play. Cowell particularly and the rest of the cast field a constant chorus and interaction. Piper triumphs though, from her cocksure as it were opening through to dissolution, vomiting against a Perspex wall, and the final shocking scene. It would have been illuminating to see her as Lorca’s Yerma; but with Stone’s pacey rewrite and direction Piper absorbs the spirit and repays with a gift – and loss – of shuddering timelessness.