Yerma is a devastating story about a woman tortured by her own biology. She becomes fixated on bearing a child, but thwarted by her infertility. Her fixation is poison. The brilliant thing about this play is that there’s no pressure valve: bile and hatred rise inside her to the point of total emotional collapse. It’s powerful stuff.
Billie Piper is on top form in Simon Stone’s reinvention of Lorca. We first meet her as she settles into a new house, three floors in Marylebone, bought with her long-term partner John (Brendan Cowell). They are dizzy with love: idly chatting on the carpet, swigging Veuve Clicquot and munching takeaway pizza. Stone has set the tone perfectly. This is a couple with fortune on their side. They have a nice house, good careers and they are wildly happy. But this will all unravel, and it will unravel in a most spectacular and horrifying way.
Lizzie Clachan’s set is a stroke of genius. It’s a giant glass box, surrounded by the audience, in which all the action takes place. The effect is voyeurism: watching a disaster unfurl from a clinical perspective. Time jumps forward in irregular amounts, notices flash up on screens: “FOUR MONTHS LATER”, “A YEAR LATER”, “THE NEXT NIGHT”. When the box falls into darkness the scenes change with miraculous efficiency. A particularly impressive scene is the recreation of a Glastonbury swamp. It’s pouring with rain, there’s discordant noise and strobe lights. Piper slides about in the mud, off her nut on drugs: she is totally out of control, jobless and careless, oscillating between chemical euphoria and mental anguish. The piece is a huge “fuck you” to the situation of childlessness.
Maureen Beattie is wonderful as Helen, the distant mother. She is scared by intimacy, leaning towards academic pursuits, caustic quips and ordering off Deliveroo, rather than embracing her daughter. The conversation is often brought back to children, most importantly this phantom child. Piper is even irked by the pregnancy of her sister Mary (Charlotte Randle). At one point she tries her hand at gardening, a sort of vicarious fertility, but even this withers and dies. The subject of her infertility is dealt with in contemporary ways: blogging, IVF treatment. The public consumes the chunks of confession with inestimable hunger.
The comforts of her modern life evaporate. Even her ex-lover relocates to the other side of the world. It seems everything abandons her. In the end she is desperate, self-loathing and at her most vile: hideous like a gorgon. The performance is crowned with a convulsive effort, it is absolutely breath-taking.