With a string of five-star reviews from several of the country’s top newspapers, Simon Stone’s Yerma is becoming one of London’s must-see shows – and with it, Billie Piper is cementing her status a star of London theatre. Yerma, originally written in the Spain in the 1930s, has been updated and relocated to modern London, where it’s tale about a woman’s obsession with her own infertility. But it is chiefly a play about relationships: between a husband and wife, between a woman and her body, and between a mother and her unborn child. It’s the fragility of these connections and what happens when they breakdown, which make Yerma so devastatingly powerful.
It would be easy to make an adaptation of Yerma, an 80 year-old play about female fertility, come across as a touch outdated. But this production goes to great lengths to avoid that pitfall by giving it an extremely contemporary feel, and by making the protagonist a feminist blogger – which contrasts interestingly with the predicament she finds herself in. The play opens with the couple having just moved into a house together in London, where the notion of motherhood – previously anathema to Piper’s character – suddenly sparks somewhere within her. It’s a spark that we gradually see spread into a fire: one that threatens to consume everything.
Piper’s performance here is crucial to making the whole play work, and the way in which she portrays this anxiety about motherhood creeping up and eventually overwhelming her is utterly convincing. She has that rare magnetic quality to her personality which she brings to this role, that makes watching her peculiarly gripping. She’s spontaneous, confident, humorous, beautiful – and yet in spite of her uninhibited spirit she shows us so vividly how the weight of her obsession falls upon her. How the barrenness of her womb manages to spread first throughout her body, then her life, and ultimately the lives of those around her.
Stone stages this tragic progression in a way which complements the subject matter well. All of the action takes place in a kind of long glass box in the centre of the stage with audience on either side. I was concerned that having the actors sealed within this space would distance them from the audience, but this was not at all the case. Instead it served to augment the sense of claustrophobia which builds as the play goes on – and also facilitated some bewilderingly quick and impressive scene changes.
One feels a little sorry for the rest of the cast – especially Brendan Cowell who puts in a superb performance as the struggling husband – as Piper to an extent steals the show. But in truth there are superb performances all round, and Piper only shines because of some dazzling supporting work. A special mention must go to Maureen Beattie, who plays the protagonist’s no-nonsense mother whose own approach to parenthood is comically lacking in outward displays of affection, though we sense she cares deep down. The play is perhaps not as flawless as some critics have seemed to suggest – we can’t always sympathise with the characters, and I felt the ending was even slightly lacking in imagination. But this doesn’t detract from the undeniable quality of the piece, which is very carefully written, incredibly acted, and doesn’t fail to move its audience profoundly.
Yerma plays at the Young Vic until September 24th.