Yerma, review of Billie Piper in Simon Stone's adaptation at the Young Vic
There's no other venue in London quite as adept at reinventing classic texts like the Young Vic. From A Streetcar Named Desire and A View From a Bridge to The Cherry Orchard and The Trial, the Southbank venue consistently produces some of the finest drama in a thoroughly original and contemporary new light.
Simon Stone's adaptation of Lorca's 1934 play Yerma is no exception. Consistently bracing, urgent and ultimately tragic this is a modern spin on a well-worn text that redefines this play and forces you to consider it as a piece of brand new writing. Billed as 'after Lorca', this is more than just a modern adaptation, instead of just changing the context to London of 2016 Stone has instead crafted a whole new structure, characters and dialogue that feast off the very bones of piece and 'liberate' it almost beyond recognition.
Billie Piper plays 'Her', a 33-year-old successful lifestyle editor and influencer living in London with her often absent Aussie husband who clash about their guiding principles – whilst her overwhelming desire is to have a baby, his is to travel the world and make money. As they agree to both focus on the former, their circumstances shift uncontrollably, leading to challenges in conception that grows into obsession and monomania.
Whilst Lorca's rural original discusses nature and social conventions, Stone places his central character in the heart of the urban jungle, with every tool from Uber to Deliveroo at her disposal. The social conventions are challenged by both her mother and sister, turning it on its head so that the pressure to conceive never comes from an outward source, instead it mounts and consumes from within, despite the maternal apathy shown from within her own upbringing. One significant development that comes from the contemporary setting is Her's role as an online presence as the 'community' becomes a virtual one that aren't so much judging or pitying her lack of child but encouraging and facilitating her more macabre thoughts in order to boost her following – a dark underbelly that constantly simmers just below the surface and extends Lorca's text into a truly modern field.
Stone, who also directs, places the action in a Perspex box (designed by Lizzie Clachan) adding an intermediary lens and placing Her and her family under constant scrutiny. It's expertly delivered by an impressive technical team who keep each scene under control and we watch on as voyeurs in what becomes an increasingly suffocating environment. Scene changes are accompanied by an energetic and pounding score by Stefan Gregory which in the complete darkness has the ability to play with your senses and feel not only the passage of time but also the mounting frustration that builds throughout the snap-shot scenes.
That level of dissonance is matched in Piper's tour-de-force central performance that's both transformative and earth-shatteringly compelling to watch. What started out plummy and over-entitled reduced me to audible gasps as I found myself completely gutted by her obsessive honesty and frightened by her possession. In every way a modern woman she differs from Lorca's Yerma whose whole reason of being is to provide a child – instead Piper allows this discussion to reflect outwards rather than in projecting modern sensibilities and expectations directly back at you whatever your sex. What follows is a discussion on pressures of all areas of successful modern life, and as her life descends into failed rounds of IVF, her marriage collapses and the online world show their true colours Stone hits his audience with everything he's got, turning up the volume, blinding the perspective and literally opening the heavens.
With fantastic support from Brendan Cowell as her defeated husband John as well as a suitably indifferent Maureen Beattie as her mother Helen, this is finely acted and carefully judged set of performances. It's arresting, merciless and deeply unsettling -- another triumph for The Young Vic's commitment to reinventing classic work with a contemporary voice and utterly unmissable.