“Regret – not now, maybe later”, says the unnamed Her (Billie Piper). She thinks it might be a good idea to try for children because… because they’ve got three floors in their newly-purchased house, because she’s thrity-two, because why not? This is only chapter one, and we’ve got a lot of regret to go.
Yerma (meaning barren) was originally a 1934 play by Spanish writer Ferderico Garcia Lorca. It’s about a woman unable to conceive in a particular culture at a particular time. It’s also a personal tragedy, rendered timelessly relevant and planted firmly in the twenty-first century by Australian director and playwright Simon Stone.
Her’s successful writing career, veneer of sexual confidence and bang-up-to-date pro-choice ethical judgement system mean it’s no surprise when, early on, she echoes a convincing and almost universally accepted mantra: “This is not who I am, I am not my reproductive system”. But, as Yerma slowly but insistently suggests, there are other – less obvious – pressures that weigh on parents trying to conceive than a good old-fashioned lack of feminist thinking. Her’s husband, played by a slow-burning Brenden Cowell, mocks the desire to be “That Couple” – who push a buggy down the pavement on Primrose Hill in order to pick up a couple of flat whites. That desire might exist, but it’s a symptom rather than the cause of a bigger psychological issue at stake. The highly intelligent, highly-achieving Her is no more naturally maternal than her cold (yet frequently hilarious) mother (Maureen Beattie), or her down-trodden sister (Charlotte Randle). She is, however, unable to deal with falling short to any challenge she sets her mind to. Infertility is not the problem – failure is.
Her has a thriving and sexy career as a blogger, and her unexpectedly falling number of blog readers is the main motive for the change is her writing style, as advised by her twenty-one year old assistant. The glamorous millennial, played effortlessly by Thalissa Teixeira, may have wildly different views to Her on fertility and pregnancy (“I don’t take the pill – it fucks with my aura”) but her advice to move away from “the not getting pregnant thing” to full on sensationalist confession-writing proves highly valuable and is taken as such. Her is rocketed back to blogger fame and three thousand hits in twenty minutes when she records in print that her sister’s miscarriage caused her nothing but glee and relief despite her appearance of sympathy. She is also rocketed back to the depths of a failing marriage and a shouting match with her husband in the garden, but the increasingly unwell and narcissistic Her doesn’t seem to mind too much. In addition to this, a former lover of Her’s (played by John Macmillan) appears as a constant reminder of the child Her aborted when she was just twenty-three.
We hear only reported snatches of what Her might be writing in the blog, but the ramifications of writing a story down to be analysed, enjoyed or gobbled up by others (depending on your preferred stance) is never far away from the minds of a crowd captured and enraptured inside an auditorium. Yerma runs for a hefty one hundred minutes without an interval, but is divided up into seven chapters with unflinching titles like “Conception” and “Descent”. Within these chapters come further sub-headings: “the night later when she reminded her husband”, “about 11 months later”; even – tantalisingly, horribly – “a baby”. The effect is twofold: on the one hand we end up counting time across the seven or eight years covered by the play as obsessively as Her; on the other the experience of watching the play becomes in one sense rather like devouring a slightly gossipy blog. Where do we draw the line at watching other people’s suffering? If Her’s avid blog-readers are cold-hearted sensation-seekers, then who are we to be watching a personal tragedy and rapid unravelling of mental health – even more to be unquestioning of Her’s self-fashioning as the sole victim of external circumstance? Stone’s decision to enclose the whole play in a glass cuboid with audiences lined up on either side is nothing less than genius at the point where we are asked to feel both like partakers of outstanding artistic live performance, and customers at a zoo for human emotion.
The set, designed by Lizzie Clachan, is sparse but highly effective. Essentially it comprises a large glass box whose floor switches between carpet, turf and a muddy festival field in slick transformations carried out under the cover of pitch darkness and insistently unsettling music ranging from Mozart to contemporary female choral music to droning white noise. Against this backdrop the full range of volatile emotion of six cast members is played out to full and claustrophobic effect.
Not that it’s all depressing. Her’s unrufflable mother plays out a delightful and perfectly-delivered scene early on, in which she waxes lyrical to her daughter about the triumphs and tribulations of the invention of Deliveroo: “sometimes I order things just because I can! I end up at eleven o’ clock at night with half a peking duck and I don’t know what to do with it!” It’s fun, relatable, and funny stuff – and all the more heart-aching for coinciding just with the moment when Her wants to engage her mother in the serious conversation and physical intimacy that she claims never to have had as a child.
Like the purest form of tragedy, the ending of Yerma is as retrospectively predictable as it is impossibly distant from its first sunny scenes of domestic bliss (a takeaway pizza and a bottle of plonk). Thankfully we do not live in a society in which the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception – effortless pregnancy with none of the sex, as Her points out – is presented as the ideal. But there remain any number of reasons why individuals set themselves unachievable standards, betray one another, and give up on themselves. Yerma offers one story, and asks a hundred questions in response.
Yerma is showing at The Young Vic until the 30th August and is showing in cinemas across the county as part of National Theatre Live on the 31st. For more information see here.