'Yerma' returns to the Young Vic in July 2017. This review is from the 2016 run. Tickets for the 2017 run go on sale Feb 1 at 10am
As swearwords fly and Billie Piper strides through a cream-carpeted loft, it’s hard to believe we’re watching Lorca’s 1934 play ‘Yerma’, a story about a farmer’s wife broken by her longing for a child. But then again, we’re not, quite. This heartbreaking classic is almost unrecognisable in Australian auteur-director Simon Stone’s hands – turned into a fiercely modern story that’s electrified by Billie Piper’s central role. He’s razed Lorca’s country village to the ground to build something stark and new where it used to stand, but it’s still haunted by the ghost of the woman that lived there.
Women are no longer defined by the state of their wombs, or ostracised for their childlessness like the original Yerma was. But Stone has turned her into an entirely plausible twenty-first-century creation. She’s a hard-drinking journalist who’s settled down with her boyfriend John (a gently exasperating Brendan Cowell), in what they hope is a rapidly gentrifying corner of London.
Billie Piper squeezes every laugh from the opening’s faintly groan-worthy social satire. She and her husband start out as champagne socialists, whose bid to start a family won’t interfere with having a good time. There are cracks about pre-pregnancy yoga, Veuve Clicquot and avocado-on-toast. But as her desperation for a child grows, so does the play. It becomes huge, cavernous, an arena for Billie Piper to deliver a performance of career-defining horror.
Lizzie Clachan’s design is a reminder that the Young Vic is a place where theatre magic happens: the actors are trapped in a soundproofed glass tank that transforms from luxurious apartment to garden to wild music festival. It’s a strikingly effective visual metaphor for the way that the woman at its heart becomes an animal to be watched, with her thousands of blog readers poring over each fresh update on her ovaries. The actors’ amplified voices fill the auditorium, emphasising every last, agonising word.
With credits like a stunning turn in ‘The Effect’ at the National Theatre to her name, Billie Piper’s career has long since shaken off its cheesy beginnings as a teenager popstar-turned-Doctor Who companion. But her performance in ‘Yerma’ is something else. She’s fearless, furious, wildly funny – then utterly destroyed, as she realises that neither yoga nor bravado can overcome the vulnerability of her own body.