Yerma at the Young Vic review: Billie Piper shows her acting chops but the production lacks poetry

Simon Thomson
Yerma at the Young Vic

Inspired by Federico García Lorca’s play of the same name, the Young Vic’s new production of Yerma (Barren) is well acted and inventively staged, but undermined by a misguided impulse to modernise.

The original was set in rural Spain, following a young woman penned in by society and her beliefs, whose increasingly desperate desire for motherhood ultimately drives her to a terrible act of destruction. It deals with honour, the restrictions of a patriarchal faith, and an older, more profound paganistic force of nature. You can see the spine of this running through the new production, but much of the lyrical spirit is sacrificed at the altar of realism.

The young woman and her partner are part of modern-day London’s thrusting creative set. She writes a lifestyle blog, while he does something in business that requires lots of overseas travel. We meet them as they congratulate themselves on the purchase of their new home, an absurdly large building in an up-and-coming part of the metropolis. They drink, discuss the role of lesbians as the shock-troops of gentrification, and she demands that he has sex with her. It immediately feels wrong to be watching them; partly because it’s so voyeuristic, but mostly because they’re the kind of insufferably smug people you’d actively avoid at a party.

It’s all downhill from here, as her desire for a baby runs up against biology, and his desire to grow his business. He neglects her, and she becomes at first resentful and then unhinged as the clock runs out on her fertility. You could almost feel a sense of schadenfreude watching their relationship crumble, if it weren’t for the actors imbuing the roles with an emotional depth that just about overcomes their characters’ unsympathetic personalities.

Brendan Cowell has the bedraggled world-weariness and bluff intonation of late period Russell Crowe, while Billie Piper is magnetic in the central role, her abundant facial features conveying an intensity of emotion that would usually require a close-up.

The staging is clever, placing the action in a kind of Perspex tank with the audience banked up on either side. The performers are fitted with radio mics, meaning their voices emerge from above the stage, which seems to heighten the sense of voyeurism. Scene changes are effected by plunging the theatre into darkness, blasting ululating chants to cover the noise on stage, and displaying surtitles that chart the passage of time.

Director Simon Stone’s justification for updating and rewriting the play is that he wanted to show its universality, that the same issues that affected Spanish farm-girls also affect middle-class English yuppies. His dialogue is sharp, and often funny, which is just as well because otherwise his play would be relentlessly miserable.

But Lorca described his play as a “tragic poem”, and transferring it to the contemporary vernacular has robbed it of its poetry. It is no longer a metaphor, but a concrete series of events, where mystery is replaced with science; gone is the wise woman and in her place is IVF. And while we can accept exaggeration and excess in the plots of allegorical tales, a myth transposed to the real world too easily becomes a melodrama. The specificity of this production jettisons the timelessness of the original, resulting in a unsophisticated tale of psychological unravelling, the implausibility of which is only obscured by the quality of Piper’s performance.