REVIEW: Billie Piper astounds in “Yerma”
New York’s theatrical cross-pollination with London is feeling increasingly one-sided these days. On the heels of “Hangmen” and “Harry Potter”, The Young Vic’s acclaimed 2016 production of Simon Stone’s “Yerma”—adapted from Spanish writer Federico García Lorca’s 1934 play—makes its North American premiere in a visceral, cinematic, and disturbing production at the Park Avenue Armory, with a limited run through April 21st.
Mr. Stone, who serves as writer and director, constructs from the skeins of Lorca’s translated text a modern tragedy on par with the Greek classics, harmoniously marrying visual, aural, and physical elements to produce a disorienting and enveloping stage magic at once heart-stopping and jaw-dropping, and wholly in service to the larger metaphors at work in the story and the context in which it is told.
“Yerma”, in Spanish, refers to a barren or infertile land or woman. In seven captioned chapters, each containing countless jump-cut scenes, a magnetic and mesmerizing Billie Piper (“Doctor Who”, “Penny Dreadful”) plays a character simply named “Her”—a 33-year old feminist blogger from London who becomes fixated on getting pregnant, bowing to a creeping, ubiquitous societal duty to procreate and taunted by the regrets of an imagined future self. As ambivalence about “giving in” fast develops into a manic obsession fueled by infertility and impending “irrelevance”, Ms. Piper gives an absolute knockout and haunting performance, painting a painful portrait of an increasingly tortured, depressed, and untethered Her.
Ms. Piper’s Her is a center of gravity around which every character orbits throughout the harrowing mania of her publicly self-documented descent—a nod to the vanity and nihilism of our social media networks. Her boyfriend then husband (Brendan Cowell) is tepidly on board with the baby project; a past, and perhaps better-suited lover (John MacMillan) pops up at all the wrong times; her sister (Charlotte Randle) keeps getting pregnant; her mother (Maureen Beattie) is cold and detached; and her assistant (Thalissa Teixeira) seems a vision of Her’s former self. Each reveals remaining strands of sexual policing of women’s bodies and fault lines in the never ending and fraught societal and interpersonal commentary surrounding reproduction.
Lorca’s play was written in critical response to the strict religious morality and social expectations of his time. Mr. Stone brilliantly reimagines the story for our time, crafting a drama ancient in pattern but modern in parlance, summoning shouts that echo across millennia as easily as they echo through the vast 55,000 square foot expanse of the Armory’s drill hall. His text is smart, natural, and fast, and it is matched by an equally crisp and striking staging.
Collaborating with set designer Lizzie Clachan, Mr. Stone divides the audience by a rectangular, clear-glass encasement that serves as mirror and microscope. Like Andrew Schneider’s “After”, the rapidity of blackout scene changes defies logic, especially in a glass box bearing no apparent egress. Sparsely dressed, for the most part, and grounded in white carpet, green grass, or mud, the brightly lit terrarium-as-stage allows the actors to exist free of audience reference point.
The glass walls prevent natural voices from carrying outside and ambient noise from travelling in, so body mics appended to each actor capture every sound in this vacuum with incredibly articulated clarity of detail, mixed and amplified to produce the effect of hearing a radio program or film track—a uniquely atypical manufactured aural experience for the theatre that creates an astounding intimacy with the performers. A recent study found that the heartbeats of audience members synchronize; I have no doubt that is the case at “Yerma”.
But for, perhaps, St. Ann’s Warehouse, “Yerma” could not be replicated anywhere else in New York. In just over a decade since its founding, the Park Avenue Armory has emerged as a major force in the city’s cultural landscape, providing impeccably curated programming offering singular experiences not to be found elsewhere. This production, and Ms. Piper’s performance, is likely to be one that its fortunate audience members talk—and brag—about for years to come. Do what you can to count yourself among their ranks.
Bottom Line: The Park Avenue Armory imports The Young Vic’s visceral, cinematic, and disturbing production of “Yerma” by Simon Stone, starring Billie Piper, who performs an astounding portrait of a woman’s descent into madness fueled by infertility. Do what you can to see this heart-stopping and jaw-dropping play.
The Young Vic at
Park Avenue Armory
643 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10065
Running Time: one hour, forty-five minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: March 27, 2018
Final Performance: April 21, 2018