Friday, 19 August 2016

Yerma

A searing look at the loss of one woman’s dreams of having a baby produces an astonishing piece of theatre

Written by Georgina Brown
Georgina-Brown-colour-176Back in 1998, a 15-year-old Billie became the youngest artist ever to debut at number one in the charts with Because We Want To. The words – I remember them – went like this: ‘We can do anything we want... We can do what we want to do.’ Billie, with her toothy smile and springy limbs, was the epitome of that brand-new coinage: ‘girl power’. Then gutsy Billie reinvented herself as the actress Billie Piper, first on the telly as Dr Who’s sidekick, then on the London stage. Anything Billie wanted, she could do.

Which somehow makes it all the more affecting that the role she is now playing is that of a woman who can’t do the one thing she wants, which is to have a child. The epitome of utter powerlessness.

Australian writer and director Simon Stone’s searing new take on Lorca’s Yerma – the word means barren in Spanish – relocates the play to present-day London, a world away from a village in 1930s Spain. ‘Barren’ is a word seldom heard these days. Most of us are tactful on the subject of childlessness. Not, however, wannabe prime minister Andrea Leadsom. Her comment that having children meant she had ‘a very real stake’ in Britain’s future, rightly cost her the contest. Piper’s thoroughly modern woman – she remains nameless – is a successful London journalist. She has bought with her boyfriend, John (Brendan Cowell) a house with plenty of room for babies. She is 33. So they crack open the champers, stamp on her contraceptive pills and it’s all systems go.

The stage, behind protective glass panels, becomes a laboratory. Over several years – ‘four months later’ pops up on a screen – we witness the devastating way in which physical barrenness becomes for this woman a spiritual barrenness, slowly but surely sucking the life from every relationship, especially that between herself and her own ‘useless’ body.

Her sister (Charlotte Randle) gets pregnant by accident and doesn’t enjoy her baby. Her mother (Maureen Beattie) admits to having been a reluctant parent. ‘I could have done without it,’ she says. ‘Her’ goes through a dozen rounds of hormonally, financially punishing IVF, obsessively charting every humiliation, every hateful, furious emotion she feels towards her fertile sister, her crass mother, her bewildered husband in a confessional blog.

Piper begins the play with her characteristic physical bounce and that big open smile of hers. Little by little, raw, ravenous grief consumes her. It is harrowing to watch. Piper has the most extraordinary ability to tap into deep and apparently entirely spontaneous emotion. The production, brilliantly performed, punctuated by choral music and African singing, becomes a requiem for Her’s lost hopes. Unmissable and surely award-winning – but prepare to be shattered.

Until 24 September at the Young Vic, The Cut, London SE1: 020-7922 2922, www.youngvic.org 


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