Thompson Arts Center at Park Avenue Armory, New York
April 7, 2018

Yerma has always been a brave and dangerous play. Often cited as the work that led to its author’s assassination two years after its first production in 1934, the second of Federico García Lorca’s Rural Trilogy deals with issues of religious faith, marital fidelity and the empowerment of women that were in its day inimical to both the Catholic Church and to social conservatives. What Australian director Simon Stone’s brilliant and daring updated adaptation proves is that the play has lost none of its teeth, and in Billie Piper’s searingly visceral, at times unwatchably painful incarnation of the central character, audiences can witness what has to be one of the great acting performances of the decade.

Billie Piper as Her and Thalissa Teixeira as Des in Yerma. Photo © Stephanie Berger

Lorca’s housewife Yerma and her farm labourer husband Juan become simply ‘Her’, a successful journalist, cultural commentator and blogger, and John, her Aussie businessman partner. Part of an all too recognisable ‘champagne socialist’ set, they flaunt their left-wing, liberal credentials while quietly acquiring a new home in a gentrifying London borough and planning the next steps in their upwardly mobile bourgeois life together. For him, that means meeting, greeting and making money; for her it’s about having a child. (Not that she plans to wind back or let family impact her career.) But as we watch, that initial impulse to have a baby progresses from a 33-year-old’s drunken, half-desire for a quick impregnating fuck, to become a be-all-and-end-all fatal obsession as she approaches 40.

Despite Stone’s chatty, colloquial text containing no readily identifiable lines from the semi-stylised original, he’s managed to capture much of Lorca’s intention through a series of smartly conceived parallels, giving his Yerma both an unmistakable echo of the antecedent play while riffing on and spinning the author’s intentions firmly into the 21st century. So, on the one hand, Yerma’s friend Maria becomes ‘Her’ sister Mary and, just as in Lorca’s text, the latter’s endless ability to conceive without ever seeming to want to becomes a source of increasing pain and jealousy. On the other, the original Yerma’s endeavour to boost her fecundity by a nocturnal cemetery visit with a ‘wise woman’ is expanded into full-blown fertility tests and a financially crippling series of attempts at IVF. Lorca’s laundresses who gossip about childless women are subtly abstracted into the no less deadly readers and commentators of the online blog where ‘She’ bears her soul with an increasingly destructive impact on a family forced to witness their ‘dirty laundry’ hung out to dry in public.

The Company in Yerma. Photo © Stephanie Berger

To reflect 21st-century mores, Stone takes his tale in directions that Lorca did not. For example, a prior relationship with colleague Victor led ‘Her’ to have an abortion a decade ago. Likewise, ‘She’ is ultimately prepared to do whatever it takes to conceive again including having sex with a man who isn’t her husband, unlike the deeply Catholic Yerma. But you can’t imagine there is anything here that a modern-day Lorca would not embrace. Not only that, Stone’s text crackles with energy, is peppered with wit and intelligence, and climaxes in a pair of hideously credible and excruciating emotional breakdowns.

Lizzie Clachan’s striking terrarium set is, according to the director’s note, designed to create the effect of watching the scientific dissection of a modern woman, and it does. By setting the play in traverse, it also reveals one half of the audience to the other, heightening an ugly sense of voyeurism and modern society’s obsession with reality drama and car crash TV. This is Stone’s North American debut, and for those who have seen his impressive catalogue of Australian work, putting his radio-miked actors behind glass at first glance may feel like a directorial tic, but in this case, it feels so appropriate that you soon lose any sense of having seen this before. Seamless and frequently magical set changes happen in black outs as carpet turns to lawn, which transforms to a literal and metaphoric wasteland, at the flick of a switch, adding a contemporary filmic element to scenes that tantalisingly never quite end as you’d expect. James Farncombe’s penetrating lighting design skilfully dissects matters further, while the sound design by Stefan Gregory (another Australian) is so naturalistic that voices never feel anything other than entirely present. His eclectic score adds to the growing sense of emotional oppression. The third Aussie on the creative team is Alice Babidge whose smart, unobtrusive contemporary costumes are spot on.

Billie Piper and Brendan Cowell in Yerma. Photo © Stephanie Berger

So, what of Piper’s performance – one that earned her a slew of awards in London, even seeing off Glenda Jackson’s lauded King Lear? Her TV work over the past decade has revealed an actor of remarkable naturalness, but there’s a lot more on display here besides. One can only hope that she will survive stripping herself emotionally naked and baring her soul – twice a day on some occasions – as this must be one of the most honest and dangerously close to the bone performances in theatrical memory. Without a hint of technique on display, Piper simply is this woman, exposed and raw in all her fierce intelligence, physical and mental desperation, and progressively emotional ugliness. The final 10 minutes are virtually unbearable, the last scene so visceral that many in the audience just sat there at the end, shell-shocked, unable to applaud when the lights came up.

Australian actor Brendan Cowell plays husband John. The role has been written ‘Aussie’, and occasionally teeters on the brink of larrikin cliché, but Cowell manages to turn what starts off as an unattractive braggart into a three dimensionally complex character and ultimately a crushed, pathetic bankrupt. His descent is carefully charted as he fails to forsee each inevitable step and increasingly struggles to match his partner’s distressing demands. It’s a performance of conviction and only when set against Piper’s raw spontaneity at the very end does his performance feel a little actorly by comparison.

Billie Piper in Yerma. Photo © Stephanie Berger

Maureen Beattie is engagingly authentic as Piper’s probing yet detached Scottish socialist mother Helen, whose lack of physical empathy with her daughter becomes a rod with which she is soundly beaten. Quietly humorous and increasingly out of her emotional depth, she’s well partnered by Charlotte Randle as her other daughter, the relentlessly fertile Mary. The tension in the sibling bond is palpably on display as the latter’s successive pregnancies become more and more unwelcome in light of Piper’s self-centred fixation. John MacMillan’s awkwardly nerdish Victor and Thalissa Teixeira as Des, Piper’s exploitative millennial media assistant, complete a flawless ensemble cast.

If it seems perverse to say “you shouldn’t miss this” when many couples, and particularly women in their late 30s or early 40s, might find the subject matter way too close for comfort, this Yerma nevertheless is an extraordinary piece of theatre that cries out from its excoriated heart to be seen. If no intrepid producer brings this to Australia, you have until April 21 to secure a return for its sold-out run in New York.

Yerma is at Park Lane Armory, New York until April 21