I first became aware of Simon Stone when living in Perth, and happily situated next to a beautiful old cinema specializing in Independent and Australian film. Whilst standing in line for a $5 ticket one evening I overheard a conversation about a young Australian director who had adapted Ibsen’s The Wild Duck into a movie. The story, it seemed, had been transposed to a small logging town in Tasmania. Although by no means a traditionalist, there was something about this notion that horrified me. This happens sometimes when a play is too close to your heart. The audacity of it! I fumed to myself. Intrigued by what I was sure was going to be a total massacre of a beloved play, I ensured I saw Stone’s The Daughter immediately. One of my greatest pleasures in life is being surprised and having prejudices and preconceived notions proved wrong. Stone had seduced me. His adaptation was radical and risk-taking, brilliantly reminding modern audiences of the relevance these classic plays still hold for us. In this fast-paced world where everything seems transitory and readily disposable these plays endure, and for good reason. The central messages are, and will continue to be universal, and provide wonderful companionship in times of happiness or of grief.
Stone has performed similar magic on Federico Garcia Lorca’s classic play, Yerma, originally set in rural Spain in 1934, now relocated to modern-day London. Yerma, meaning barren, is a play about the inability to conceive. The longer our heroine tries and the more times she is thwarted in her desire, the more her obsession consumes her and pitches her relentlessly towards a shocking end. Not a vestige of rural Spain remains in this production; this is a contemporary and strikingly relatable story, featuring a simply astonishing performance from Billie Piper. Stone demonstrates again his uncanny ability to highlight the female experience and draw out incredibly raw, visceral and emotionally-charged performances from his heroines. From the moment Piper bounds on to the stage, you are electrified by her flighty, effervescent presence, with a voice as captivating and startling as the intense physicality of her performance. She bounds into view, speaking relentlessly in a fast-paced chatter, almost irritating in her total self-awareness and sardonic humour which establishes our complicated feelings towards the heroine of this tragedy. The knowingness of her pouting and preening is recognisable in this selfie saturated era - highlighting a peculiarly female awareness of watching eyes, and how you appear to others.
The remarkable stage is encased by glass, trapping the actors inside, highlighting the modern themes of voyeurism, reality as entertainment, the spectator as complicit through passivity and awed interest. The glass cage serves many purposes; the constriction primarily heightens the activity and intensity of the characters’ unravelling, and mirrors their ordeal of being trapped by circumstance in an unavoidable fate. It acts in a meta way by mirroring her job as a lifestyle journalist and blogger in which she is also trapped in a screen, grappling with outsiders viewing and commenting on her life. Their enclosure renders us spectators equally vulnerable and exposed, with little mitigation from the relentless march towards tragedy.
Yerma’s husband, movingly performed by Brendan Cowell, enters languid and relaxed, gazing bemusedly as she trips around him like an errant fairy that he is intoxicated by, but cannot quite capture. His later incomprehension and anguished helplessness in the face of his wife’s disintegration is entirely sympathetic. Unavoidably a play about gender, it comments on the abyss that can exist between male and female visions of the world and the way we relate to ourselves and each other. A sense of futility and knowingess is afforded to the spectator from their obvious disjunction; the visible truth to everybody but themselves, that they, as her acid-tongued mother remarks, are simply ‘not compatible’. Nature’s hand cannot be forced, biology has is own way of dictating circumstance. This truth is made starkly clear when we learn that she had been able to conceive previously with her former lover, Victor, but had chosen to abort.
However swiftly she skips between emotional states, Yerma is never satirised or made melodramatic. Once again, this is due largely to the incredible vocal performance of Piper, the sensitive pitching and modulation of her voice depending on current emotional and mental state. In the beginning her speech is frothy, rapid, captivating in happiness but switches dramatically to a pained trickle as disillusionment and depression sets in, words crawl slowly out of her shaking lips as though hauled up from the deepest well of despair. A depiction of depression so frighteningly accurate and relatable that it can’t help but make you wonder how Piper manages to relive such an experience night after night.
In one particularly memorable scene, she sits apathetically slumped in her barren garden that she has been unable to cultivate; a cruel reminder of the emptiness of her womb. In obvious torment she claws frantically at her t-shirt, plucking it disgustedly from her, lamenting the wanton betrayal of her body. She lashes out cruelly at those around her like a tiger in a cage protecting her territory, but her territory is the grief that she cannot share with anyone. In disgust at herself she tries to make herself disgusting to others, alienating herself as her body has alienated her. The deft pacing, and rapid set changes hurtle you towards a violent ending that is simply inevitable.
Billie becomes more furious and terrifying in her frustrated, thwarted womanhood. In one of the final scenes, the muddy fields of glastonbury are transformed to a Boschish scene of sheer hell and surreal violence. The hysteria lurks and then springs with unexpected vehemence and abandon. Stefan Gregory’s brilliant Greek chorus soundscape magnifies the pitch and intensity. Music builds eerily and jarringly between scenes, which are introduced, Brecht-style, with dates and headlines on a screen: “A year later”, “An ex reappeared”.
This play also draws on Artaud’s idea of the Theatre of Cruelty - employing the language of symbols to unleash powerful unconscious responses. Instead of simply following dialogue, we learn the language of cages, trees, barren land, soil, and lightening. As Albert Bemel explains, this theatre of cruelty ensures that:
“Lighting, sound equipment and other technical means would no longer subserve the text; they would partially replace it. The noises, music and colours that generally accompany the lines would in places substitute for them. They would be fortified by a range of human noises- screams, grunts, moans, sighs, yelps...These would extend the range of the actor's art and the receptivity of the spectator. To put it another way, they would enlarge the theatre's vocabulary…They would surrender themselves to a performance, live through it and feel it, rather than merely think about it.”
Stone’s radical interpretation recognises that language occasionally fails in its function to relate painful experience and offer catharsis to those that suffer. This is a play of such power and devastating acuity it can be almost unbearable. The performances are unnerving and uncomfortable yet always electrifying. Relatable to those who have ever watched someone close to them in pain, been in a dysfunctional relationship, felt the heartache of thwarted desires, lost a child or their sanity.
Yerma is on at The Young Vic until the 24th of September
(Text by Rebecca Hughes 2016)