Yerma, Arcola Theatre, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

The poetry and the heat-struck passion of Lorca's rural tragedies are notoriously hard to pull off on the English stage, where productions tend to come across as well-intentioned, but ill-conceived exercises in cultural tourism. So it's a pleasure to salute the authentic elemental passion achieved by director Helena Kaut-Howson and her cast in this forceful, sensitive account of Frank McGuinness's bitingly lyrical new version of Yerma.

A friend, who is expecting a baby after only five months of wedlock, tries to explain to the eponymous heroine what it feels like to be pregnant. "Have you ever caught a bird and felt it tight, living in your hand? Well, it's the same, only the bird is inside your blood."

But, after seven years as a wife, Yerma's longing for a son remains unfulfilled. The infertility seems like a judgement on her passionless marriage to Antonio Gil- Martinez's work-distracted Juan. Erotic temptation and a prospect of fruitfulness arrive in the powerful shape of Victor (Vincenzo Nicoli). Yerma, though, is doubly the victim of a society that is morbidly obsessed with honour and that licenses the mockery of childless women.

Staged on a white-and-black set of charged simplicity, the production dramatises the clash between repression and abandonment, Catholic and pagan ritual, the real and the dream-like with flagrant physicality, underscored by the African-flavoured live music of Tayo Akimbode.

The bawdy, gossipy washerwomen bang their laundry against the stage with a rhythmic, water-spraying slap, repeatedly countered in kind of percussive contest by the dry thwacks of Yerma's two grim, censorious sisters-in-law as they joylessly beat their own washing. There's an extraordinarily sexy fertility rite. Cut off at the centre of it all like a waif, Kathryn Hunter's deeply moving Yerma communicates - often with a surprisingly un-rhetorical, quiet poignancy - the desperate grief and obsession of a woman whose womb fills only with the stones of disappointment. The irony of the final stage-picture is devastating. British Lorca at its best.

Until 23 September (020-7503 1646)

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