Helen Tope reviews the NT Live screening of Yerma, as part of our live theatre programme.
Yerma – Spanish for ‘barren’ – is a searing tale of a marriage blown apart by the need, and failure, to have a child.
Originally set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, Yerma is played out within the confines of a tiny village. Lorca’s semi-realist play from 1934 is a masterpiece of allegory, and in this latest production, director Simon Stone in a daring rewrite, moves Lorca’s play to contemporary London. The lead character (known as Her) is a lifestyle blogger, her husband a successful businessman. They have just moved into a new home, a home big enough for a family.
To conceive of a happy ending should be their birthright, but this is not going to be their story. The early false starts run over into five years of struggle, medical intervention and childlessness. Becoming ever more rooted in denial, she refuses to discuss other options. Longing becomes tunnel vision, and it creates an impermeable distance between the couple. He spends more time away from home, her fixation grows to the exclusion of friends, family and work. The outside world begins to disappear, as she clings furiously to her ideal.
She goes to a music festival, desperately trying to find a willing donor. She returns home, defeated. Her husband announces he is leaving. The house they have mortgaged to finance IVF is being sold. No marriage, no home, no baby. There is only one thing left for her to do.
In the adaptation of Lorca’s play, the staging of Yerma is another gamble. Taking the idea of Lorca’s suffocating village and placing the characters inside a glass box, the effect is striking, both womb-like and sharply analytical. We are observing specimens, an experiment that threatens to explode beyond its four walls. Designed by Lizzie Clachan, Yerma’s enclosed world, far from shutting us out, draws us in for a master-class in immersive theatre.
The glass box surrounding the actors focuses our attention; there are no distractions or gimmicks. The play is populated with just six characters, but the stage never feels empty. Piper’s lead performance has grabbed headlines and awards, and rightly so. She turns in a performance that crackles and blisters with sheer intensity. She is funny, tender, exasperating and heartbreaking.
Piper wisely steps away from the temptation to overplay Her, by finding the commonality in her character’s frustration. Her want is a simple one, and yet the world is against her. It’s a situation everyone, on some level, can identify with. Reshaping a classic text is nothing short of a literary minefield, but Simon Stone makes the modernity incidental, and Lorca’s themes of chaos and despair, timeless.
What is interesting about Stone’s rewrite is how the ending is altered, which the act of sacrifice, ending all hope, turned inwards. It is a bold choice, that while not vastly changing the context, definitely alters the semantics. Stone’s Yerma in its final scenes becomes a thing of introspection. It is an ending of ambiguity, but it suits a play where we are never encouraged to take sides.
For a play of such brief duration, Yerma packs in the emotion like a Shakespearean heavyweight. Its content moves from hopeful elation to cruel privation in less than an hour, and the audience is made to feel every blow.
We lose none of the emotional impact, because NT Live borrows the intimacy of television, and combines it with the ambition of theatre. The screening, rather than creating a distance between audience and performer, brings us in closer. We do not miss a thing because we have the best seats in the house, every time.
By broadcasting critically-acclaimed, award-winning productions, our notion of what is ‘watchable’ has been challenged, and our expectations of a good night out have been reset. Shown in the familiar cosiness of your local cinema, Shakespeare isn’t scary – it’s entertainment writ large. The encore showing of Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet (showing at Plymouth Arts Centre on October 5th) is a perfect example of what NT Live does best. When Cumberbatch took to the Barbican stage in 2015, it was a must-see event, but only for those lucky enough to get tickets. With the NT Live broadcast, this blockbuster Hamlet can be enjoyed by audiences worldwide.
By giving us the opportunity to see live theatre, NT Live turns art consumption from a lottery into a democracy. Access to the best drama, comedy, ballet and opera is no longer dependent on living in a major city. It is such a simple idea, but NT Live is a phenomenon that is actively transforming the way we experience theatre. For the many, not just the few – NT Live gives us theatre exactly how it should be.
Helen Tope is a writer living and working in Plymouth.