Billie Piper’s performance in Lorca’s tragedy Yerma caps a powerful production at the Young Vic for the ‘antipodean Orson Welles’, Simon Stone. By Peter Craven.

Simon Stone’s ‘Yerma’

Billie Piper in Simon Stone’s production of Yerma at the Young Vic.
Billie Piper in Simon Stone’s production of Yerma at the Young Vic.
Credit: Johan Persson

So Simon Stone, a man who tinkers with masterpieces like an antipodean Orson Welles, only less faithfully, has finally made his way round to Lorca. In his adaptation of Yerma, the story of the woman who takes to the idea of motherhood like a desolation and a tragic destiny, he jettisons most of the detail of the blood and diamonds poetry but preserves the essence of the drama to stunning effect. Billie Piper gives a performance of terrific power and breathtaking tragic poignancy in the title role, showing she could play any of the great female roles in the canon.

She is very ably supported by Brendan Cowell as the husband – all bluster edging, then falling, into terrible bewilderment – and by John MacMillan as the likeable snag of a one-time flame. But everything about this production – never mind the glass box in which it transpires, the ululating chorus punctuating the segmented captions – is a triumph that makes it abundantly clear why London’s Young Vic put its money on the 33-year-old Australian who has sometimes seemed as much of a wanker as he is a genius. This is a production that will bear comparison to the very finest work of Ivo van Hove, not only for the virtuoso mastery of its experimental gestures but for the way they are subordinated to a total sense of bringing alive a piece of drama so great it makes most good contemporary plays seem like so much air.

Lorca is a dazzling master of dramatic poetry and, beyond it, of the sense of the tragic that lurks, snake-like and disarming, in common life, in the swerve and shimmer of men and women rubbing against each other, in the tensions that lurk beneath the communal values of the folk, of the way in which a doomed exultation, a tremendous but ghastly nobility of soul and inability to compromise to the mad bloody end can lurk in the most modest-seeming breast, in people not born to any princess’s eloquence.

Plays such as Blood Wedding and The House of Bernarda Alba and Yerma represent a challenge to our commonplace belief that Beckett, on the one hand, and O’Neill, on the other, are as close as we can go in the direction of tragedy. And Lorca’s tremendous advantage – compared with Beckett’s stony tragicomedy or O’Neill’s heartbreaking garrulousness (and with him Tennessee Williams and Miller and Albee) – is that he is a poet, not like Eliot or Yeats, using it with minor equipment for the dramatic task, but a writer like Shakespeare where the drama and the poetry are intrinsic. In that sense he’s less like Yeats than he is like Synge, the author of The Playboy of the Western World and that desolation of a one-acter Riders to the Sea, and a reminder of how James Joyce’s joker Buck Mulligan recalls Shakespeare as “the chap that writes like Synge”.

Though Synge, with his west coast of Ireland idioms of blarney and the troubled heart beneath, exemplifies the problem of translating Lorca. If he is done in Irish English, he can sound quaint; if he is done in the provincial accents of Yorkshire or Lancashire – as the BBC is inclined to do him – the plangency and fire of his peasants sound like an emanation from a housing estate.

Neutral English seems like the best bet and this Stone achieves by the simple – dread-inducing but brilliant-in-practice strategy – of setting Yerma in contemporary inner-urban London. Piper speaks standard, very attractive English, Cowell his own brand of rough and ready Australian, Yerma’s mother her own disgruntled Scottish burr, and it all adds up to a commonwealth of disconsolation.

Stone ruthlessly dispenses with the detail of Lorca’s imagery and the element of transfiguration that comes from the poetic side of his rhetoric, but he gets a surprisingly hefty chunk of the dramatic punch. We sometimes forget that the greatest literary masters of drama – the Shakespeares and Sophocleses – are not essentially literary at all; that there is a drama beneath the beauty, which is in fact its justification. How else can the Greeks work, when they do, so powerfully in translation? How else can Dostoyevsky get an effect remarkably like Shakespeare from the dullest words?

Stone hones Lorca’s language to a set of idiomatic gestures someone could indeed say – coyly, insinuatingly, in passion, in outrage, in longing and in the tumult of despair. As he says to the artistic director of the Young Vic in a short clip that precedes the show, he’s preserved the “myth”. And the cumulative power of his Yerma is such that this comes across as Aristotle meant it: mythos as action.

Piper has a luminous attractiveness as she plays about with her on-stage husband Cowell, fiddling flirtatiously towards her obsession to have a child. She’s classless, she’s upper middle class – none of the social categories matter because we’re primarily aware of a woman ripe with confidence in her body and her sexuality and its relationship to an intimately recognisable common dream. And then we gradually watch that desire to fulfil the potential of her womanhood turn into a torture and then a tragedy for her.

Piper is superb and utterly credible. She uses her personal starriness as only the beginning of how a frustration that might be bearable turns into a desolation that comes to have the towering power of something that will kill her. And Cowell matches her with a beautifully mundane, always reasonable performance, in which the character can seem heartbreakingly cold. It’s a disciplined performance, utterly supportive in the way it indicates how a workaday partner, a husband, can be incapable of rising to an occasion that has become a destiny that will destroy itself.

He is very Australian, very plausible, very assured in his limited sanity, and you get a sense from this fine performance of the dramatic intelligence and compassion that produced that superb play The Sublime. Cowell never crawls for sympathy as actors tend to do, and this makes the ice and height and horror of what Piper’s Yerma confronts all the more credible because its vernacular is so absolutely our own.

But there is no weak link in this production. The mother is garrulous, foolish and sane, a living wall. The sister, a sensible feeling woman with limits. The old flame as good as someone could be in the face of excruciation.

It’s quite an extraordinary achievement that Stone’s Yerma has so much breathless and tumultuous overheard or half-heard naturalism yet it remains a very potent and beautiful piece of stagecraft. The glass box shapes space without imposing clutter: it creates a ghostly universe in which the action can romp and run about and turn deadly like the most graphic mime or dance.

He also achieves superb trompe l’oeil effects with a sprinkling of lights creating a path or a garden or a great stretch of nocturnal uncertainty.

But at the end of the day, it is Piper’s show and it is not hard to see how she won her Olivier Award against some of the greatest actresses on earth. Her Yerma is full of vibrancy and irony and easy attractiveness. She’s a dreamboat of a woman in her early, then mid-30s, and then gradually every darkness and horror, every annihilation of her hopes, comes down upon her like
a plague that destroys life.

The way Stone has sculpted it, Yerma is a play about life yearned for and life denied. It’s a motherhood tragedy and Piper turns it into the mother of all tragedies.

It’s hard to speak too highly of a production that takes on one of the great plays from that fragile moment of late modernist flowering and makes this poetic drama into a thing of tremendous and irresistible urgency using every trick in any theatre book, traditional and progressivist.

Everyone who cares about the theatre should seek out a National Theatre Live cinema screening of Stone’s adaptation of Lorca’s Yerma because it shows with great simplicity and extreme artistic concentration the face of human tragedy. And Piper, who started out as a young pop star and went on to be a Doctor Who companion, is a wonder rivalling any Cleopatra or Hedda Gabler.


Arts Diary

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 21, 2017 as "Billie boils".

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Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

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