Simon Stone brings Yerma to National Theatre Live

Liza Dezfouli

An audacious contemporary take on Frederico Garcia Lorca's Yerma, presented by National Theatre Live and Sharmill Films.
Simon Stone brings Yerma to National Theatre Live

Federico García Lorca's play Yerma is a story of a woman driven mad by her attempts to conceive, and was first performed in 1934. The original version is set in the deeply Catholic Spanish countryside. For National Theatre Live Yerma is adapted and made contemporary by Australian director Simon Stone, doing the sort of thing he’s become famous for. Stone has a couple, Her (Billie Piper of Doctor Who fame) and John (Australian actor Brendan Cowell), get drunk, talk over each other, bicker, goad each other, enjoying their increasingly privileged life together as sophisticated left-leaning ‘smug marrieds’ in London. Life’s good … until She realises how much she wants a child. She becomes obsessed with motherhood but adoption for her is not an option. Sadly, there is a termination in her past (to ex-lover Victor played by John Macmillan) which becomes a corrosive memory.

Piper is splendid as Her, a role for which she’ll be remembered. Her character is a self-involved writer/blogger who blurts the truth of her life to the world. All those questions about what we should or shouldn’t tell about our friends and family are raised in this story. She is unrepentant in her disclosure, encouraged by co-worker Des (Thalissa Teixeira) even when John asks her to stop. John travels for work, neglecting their relationship. As their bond deteriorates he tries, desperately, to meet her needs, to save her, but it's too late. Her public success increases while her psychological descent becomes gut-wrenching to witness. To digress, in Stone’s story we’re also invited to reflect on the sense of entitlement westerners have about producing children, to think about the sorts of lengths privileged people will go to (paying women in the global south to carry and deliver babies for them, for example). We see a range of responses to motherhood with Her’s sister (Charlotte Randall) and mother (Maureen Beattie) offering differing perspectives of childbearing.

Stone presented Ibsen’s The Wild Duck in a glass box some years ago at the Malthouse and he does it again for this modernized production of Yerma, reminding us of the fourth wall: we are gazing at a story, we are voyeurs, what we’re watching is artifice. I’m not sure what this actually adds though, and wonder if it has an impact on the audibility of the production. Stone has his actors interrupting each other, not finishing sentences and often speaking quietly, sometimes even murmuring. Call me a Nana but I was annoyed by not being able to hear all the dialogue on stage but then being deafened by loud music (women's voices blasting out choral chants) between the ‘chapters’ of the story. This lends a self-conscious kind of anthemic aspect to the whole thing but in a situation like this, when you have such intense performances of so dark a story, we're already uncomfortable, already distressed, so this element is unnecessary and is, to my mind anyway, pretentious. Set changes happen in blackout when we see captions like ‘four years later,’ in an oddly cartoonish aspect to this portrayal of two human beings at their most raw.

Everyone is strong in this production; Cowell's a good match for Piper and Maureen Beattie's Helen is acerbically comical, giving us plenty to ponder about when it comes to the causes of her daughters’ respective fragilities. But the night is Piper's; her peformance is something that will long stay with you.

4 stars out of 5

In limited cinemas on Saturday 14 October. See website for details.

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Liza Dezfouli reviews live performance, film, books and occasionally music. She writes a blog under her own name and another, somewhat less-measured one called WhenMrWrongfeelsSoRight. She writes for performance every now and then, and can occasionally be seen on stage or in short films. An avid arts glutton, she's consistently thrilled by the talent abounding in her adopted city of Melbourne. For more: