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Theatre review: Yerma, Young Vic, London - 'Billie Piper gives a performance of devastating emotional force'

A deft work that brings Lorca's tragedy about the agonies of childlessness bang up to date

Paul Taylor
Monday 08 August 2016 18:54 BST
Billie Piper gives a central performance of devastating emotional force
Billie Piper gives a central performance of devastating emotional force (Johan Persson)

Even by the Young Vic's exalted standards, this is a shatteringly powerful re­invention of a familiar classic. The Australian director, Simon Stone, has taken Federico García Lorca's 1934 tragedy and transposed it from rural Spain to contemporary London, turning its story of the agonies of childlessness into a provocative play for today. It elicits from Billie Piper a central performance of such devastating emotional force that I wasn't surprised to discover myself still visibly shaking from its effects on the Tube afterwards.

Lorca's heroine is a farmer's wife driven mad by her failure to conceive, in a society where child­bearing is regarded as her main raison d'etre. Stone's protagonist is a successful journalist who has always refused to be defined by her reproductive system. Then, on the day she and her partner, John (Brendan Cowell) move into their new home, she discloses her desire to have a baby. As they raunchily flirt and ceremonially stomp on the contraceptive pill packet, you might suppose that the couple will be blessed on every front.

The play follows them, instead, through five excruciating years of barrenness. The action in this traverse production is trapped within a glass box – a design by Lizzie Clachan that increasingly makes us feel like the anguished voyeurs of some suffocating and doomed process, as the heroine's fixation becomes all­-consuming.

Stone's update is compelling in the way it interweaves elements from the eternal biological drama of the ticking clock, with aspects that bring home how the question of what it means to be a childless woman is rather different now than in Lorca's day. Bravely, the director/adaptor complicates our sense of victimhood. There is, for example, no pressure from the heroine's family; her caustic mother (Maureen Beattie) and post­natally depressed sister (Charlotte Randle) are a torment to her because of the irony that producing babies has been no problem for these avowedly unmotherly women.

She succumbs to tunnel vision (refusing to consider adoption): morevoer, she's determined to continue with a recklessly confessional blog that violates the privacy of loved ones.

The gutting brilliance of Piper's performance is that, even while it traces the protagonist's descent from witty charmer into crazed obsessive with unsparing honesty, it keeps offering aching reminders of the luminously winning young woman she once was. The awkward intimacy of the scenes with her returned ex (John Macmillan) are, after the initial hilarity, harrowinglly poignant suggestions of what might have been, unbearable to contemplate in the current circumstances. The excellent Cowell valuably keeps you guessing about the balance between the selfish and the sensitive in her laddish partner's acquiescence in the project, until looming financial ruin and her desperate mental state drive him to terminate the IVF treatment.

With its grimly droll mid­sentence black­outs, its soundtrack of female voices whose harmonies begin to slither into dissonance, and the hallucinatory panache of its scene changes, the production is both meticulous and merciless as it unfolds over an unbroken two hours, modulating from smart social comedy to the tragic extremes. A triumphant vindication of the Young Vic's policy of collaborating on the classics with visionary directors from abroad.

To 24 September; 020 7922 2922

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