National Theatre at Home review: Yerma (Young Vic)
James R | On 10, Dec 2020
“Everything’s OK!” cries a woman (Billie Piper) in Yerma, the Young Vic’s gob-smacking, heart-wrenching, jaw-dropping update of Federico Garcia Lorca’s classic play. Written in the 1930s, the iconic Spanish tragedy (the title of which literally means “dry” or “barren”) follows the young wife of a farmer who becomes obsessed with the idea of having a baby.
Australian director Simon Stone smartly updates the tale for the modern age, taking us from a rural village to the well-to-do London suburbs, changing the protagonist to a lifestyle blogger and capturing the intrusive gossiping of a tiny community through the transparency of life in a digital age. The pressures and expectations of social traditions are no longer amplified by the washerwomen, acting like a Greek chorus, but reinforced by social media trends and expectations and the criticism of anonymous trolls.
That intensity and feeling of scrutiny is echoed chillingly by Lizzie Clachan’s superb set design, which places the entire play inside a large glass box with a conveyor belt-like floor that whips the stage out from underneath its heroine’s increasingly unstable feet. Between scenes, blackouts and ominous music from Stefan Gregory ramp up the portent, with surtitles spelling out the time jumps that take these characters hurtling towards their grim fate. It’s powerfully simple, dizzyingly complex and brutally effective.
But the astonishing thing about Yerma is that you don’t even think about these things one while watching the play unfold: you’re too busy being mesmerised by its leading star’s turn. Billie Piper, who was yet to make Sky’s bold and brilliant I Hate Suzie, is simply astounding, delivering the performance of a lifetime as the increasingly anguished woman. Grappling with notions of loyalty, love, purpose and identity, Piper’s descent from someone casually interested in starting a family to someone completely possessed by the notion is horrible to witness – it’s a movingly personal performance, even as Piper’s character spills her darkest thoughts online with the wider world through her candid blog.
Piper, who is matched by a generous supporting turn by Brendan Cowell as her husband – at once bewildered and depressed by his partner’s growing detachment – drives us through each scene, as their pristinely composed domestic existence gives way to a blooming garden and then a desolate, muddy expanse. With a tweaked ending that loses none of the play’s poignancy, it’s a stomach-churning, heart-breaking ride, one that feels timeless in its themes and breathtakingly modern.
Yerma is available on National Theatre at Home as a £7.99 rental or as part of a £9.98 monthly subscription. For more on National Theatre at Home and how it works, click here.