A CAUTIONARY TALE FOR ALL TIMES AND NATIONS…
“Allow for a three-gin recovery period” advised a tweeter, during the previews of Simon Stone’s take on this perennial theme of baby-hunger leading to marital, mental and murderous disaster. Quite right. It is the most shattering night at the ever-intense Young Vic since the psychiatric-hospital Hamlet with Michael Sheen, which kept me away till four in the morning groping for comfort-reading – Jilly Cooper, Wodehouse, anything. But it is certainly brilliant, and for much of its length horribly, recognizably, contemporarily comic.
Billie Piper’s smile is the thing which stays in your head: magnetic or piteous, likeable or terrifying, She smiles a lot , in the big bare glass box where this terrible tale unfolds, hushed audience ranged either side as if in an arena, characters faintly reflecting so we seem to see them from two angles. But each time her smile is different. A larky, confident sunnily sexy grin as she romps with her Australian partner (Brendan Cowell) in their new house, hinting at a baby. Months, years, chapters of their lives go by, flashed up by surtitles as the smile becomes defiant, forced, satirically bitter , angry, and at last – after crumbling into terrible grief for the loss of someone never born – downright demented. Can’t take your eyes off her. Piper is one of the most intense and exciting creatures on any stage: could be Medea, Lady Macbeth, Richard III, King Lear himself.
It is simply the timeless sorrowful story of a woman wanting, and failing, to get pregnant. The Australian Simon Stone adapts and directs a 1934 play by Federico Lorca – assassinated by Fascist Spain 80 years ago this month. It’s a very free adaptation indeed : Stone gaily says he “vandalized” it.
Lorca’s Yerma was a childless woman whose obsessive longing for motherhood and descent into violence was fuelled by pressure and contempt from rural Catholic Spanish society. This sharply witty, slangily modern updating makes the community our own , sometimes even more censorious and nosey, online world: she’s a lifestyle confessional journalist who blogs (“no, I post posts”) at every step of her struggle, betraying unsayable feelings of resentment, sorrow, jealousy, dark hope that her own sister will miscarry, and frustrated contempt for her husband.
Modern realities dart through, though no one of them can explain the failure, which IVF (twelve cycles and more!) reveal to be in her own desperate body: there’s the husband’s business travels and porn habit, her own former abortion, her smoking and party lifestyle, even her own mother’s character. Scenes chop and move on as she is with the increasingly desperate (and beautifully played) Cowell, with a sexually free and easy colleague, with an ex=boyfriend and a dryly funny Maureen Beattie as her mother . They are interspersed with intense, whirling chants in blackness, as the glass box changes to a garden or a rainstorm. Some chorales are Spanish songs from Lorca’s period, once a poignant lullaby, one a grand deceptive Gloria as a real very new baby briefly appears. The terror of the last scenes (one is very grateful for the glass wall) is mitigated by the delicate, painful, truthful weaving of web of longing which destroys her. It is a tale for all ages.
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