When National Theatre Live began broadcasting to cinemas in 2009 with a production of Phèdre there were many who felt it devalued the theatre experience and here I’ll hold my hand up and declare that I was in that camp. But thank heavens for it, because otherwise we wouldn’t have had sixteen glorious weeks of first class content on our screens last year; nor would we have National Theatre At Home in its present format. It remains a source of quality material not only from the National itself but also other productions which have utilised its capabilities broadening the range of choice even further. Following the start of my own curated second season last week with Cat On A Hot Tin Roof I found myself back at The Young Vic last night for one of the big hitters of 2016/17, Yerma.
As can often be the vogue nowadays, this was an updated and reimagined version of Lorca’s classic written by Simon Stone who has transposed the action from rural Spain to a hipsterish London where the central character is a media blogger with a successful career, an equally successful partner and, as the play starts, a brand new house. Any thought of starting a family has been little more than casual reflection for Her (the character is never identified by name) but slowly the idea of bringing new life into the world becomes a total obsession. The play charts the five years of pain and agony that the protagonist endures, the costly business of IVF and the effects it has on mental health and on the wellbeing of loved ones. It’s a very strongly written, acted and directed production which puts all concerned through an emotional wringer as the inevitable tragedy unfolds.
The most instantly noticeable aspect when the play starts is the stunning design work of Lizzie Clachan who has set the play in a huge glass box giving the actors the appearance of specimens under the audience’s scrutiny and where Her can pace up and down like a captured (and wounded) animal. There is an almost complete absence of stage furniture and prop dressing giving the action a cold clinical look; this is reversed for a brief but key scene where the couple have (apparently) found fulfilment. Later scenes move the action outdoors and a very realistic looking tree dominates – until that too withers and dies. These scene changes are accomplished remarkably swiftly during blackouts punctuated by music which seems liturgical in tone (Stefan Gregory) and which increasingly seems to take on dissonant tones; projected captions mark the inevitable passing of time. There is a lot of naturalistic overlapping dialogue orchestrated by writer/director Stone which gives the play a natural rhythm but can be a little difficult to follow until the ear tunes in. I didn’t like it at first, and then suddenly I did as I began to recognise the powerful choice which had been made. It seemed to me to suggest that the characters are busy talking but not doing any actual listening as they remain immersed in their own world of personal issues; and it certainly makes for moving the narrative along at a breakneck pace.
The acting is uniformly superb, and Billie Piper is a total revelation in the central role as Her’s world inexorably falls apart. From playful flirtation to barely contained stoicism, manic drug riddled hedonism and, ultimately, raw bleak despair this technically faultless performance has it all; it’s no wonder that the awards came tumbling in. Brendan Cowell also raises his game as bemused partner, John, who cannot seem to do right for doing wrong and who has to make some equally hard decisions of his own particularly when it comes to managing the pair’s finances. The later scenes between the two are suffused with raw emotion as the situation tears them apart both internally and between each other. The rest of the cast are also on fine form and there are some beautifully observed moments when Her is with her fecund sister (Charlotte Randle); she appears full of delight when you know that she is just dying inside. Her relationship with her mother (Maureen Beattie) is equally strained as it is revealed that she did not particularly want children in the first place. Some solace is found in trying to revive a relationship with an ex, Victor (John Macmillan) until she inevitably goes too far with her expectations of how this should proceed.
And that’s the thing about this play. It takes actors and audience to a very dark place indeed, holds them there briefly and then keeps going. Viewers who wish to avoid trigger moments may want to give this a wide berth. However, if you appreciate fine acting, taut direction and a thrilling take on a classic then this is a production which will genuinely thrill and amaze. Highly recommended.
Production photos by Johan Persson
Yerma is available on National Theatre At Home – click here
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