“Yerma” means “barren” – and the agony of childlessness is given shocking and disturbing power by Billie Piper in this updated version of Federico Garcia Lorca’s play written in 1934 as the second of his rural trilogy.
Simon Stone has moved the setting from rural Spain to present day London and into designer Lizzie Clachan’s glass box. This puts the audience in the role of voyeur in scenes that are almost excruciatingly revealing and intimate. But we are invited in. Billie Piper’s character (she is never given a name) is a successful blogger and her subject matter is her life. Nothing is sacrosanct and, however much pain she inflicts on those around her, she cannot give up telling the world the most intimate and painful details.
When her partner John (played by an excellent Brendan Cowell who moves from slightly embarrassed blokeishness through helpless incomprehension to eventual despair) agrees to make changes to his life to aid conception he asks for one concession in return. Will she give up replaying his life on the blog? She can’t. Without her audience, her life, it seems, isn’t real, isn’t enough. But what will make it enough is a baby. In the very first scene, she announces she wants to get pregnant. John is taken aback but agrees and ritually stamps (unsuccessfully) on her contraceptive pills. It is a rare moment of light relief. The rollercoaster has begun and over the next five years the obsession to have a child takes over their lives.
There are a few other moments of humour, in particular whenever the marvellous Maureen Beattie (dry, Scottish, acerbic) who plays Piper’s wholly unmaternal mother appears. When she was pregnant she regarded her daughter as a “parasitic succubus” though she doesn’t regret having her. It had, after all, been entertaining watching her life. Equally unmotherly is Piper’s sister Mary who even suggests giving her son to Piper. When Mary gets pregnant again, Piper admits to “waves of relief” when she has a miscarriage. Of course she puts this in the blog which had been flagging but now gets a new lease of life. This is what people want the glowing Thalissa Teixeira, Piper’s assistant tells her, they lap this stuff up.
How can these women who don’t seem to want children have them so easily? Piper gets more and more unhinged, obsessed with getting pregnant and careless about everyone around her. She meets up with Victor (John Macmillan), a former lover and tries to persuade him to get her pregnant. She refuses to consider adoption. She goes on a relentless endless round of IVF that leads to bankruptcy. In five years the funny, confident, sparky woman she was has turned her back on her partner, her family and the world. She can only look inside for the unborn son she so longs for. This is a tour de force performance from Billie Piper and a dazzling, harrowing production.
Yerma at the Young Vic, 66 The Cut, London SE1 8LZ, until 24th September 2016. Production images by Johan Persson. For more information and tickets please visit the website.