Theatre Review – Yerma (Young Vic) starring Billie Piper

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Simon Stone’s modern adaptation of Yerma, Frederico Garcia Lorca’s 1934 play, is one of those nights at the theatre I’ll never forget. Productions such as this latest offering from the Young Vic (a venue that continues to excite with its programming), are exactly why I love the live theatre experience. Simply put, you don’t just watch this production, you feel its intensity and it stays with you long after you’ve left.

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Brendan Cowell & Billie Piper. Photo: Johan Persson

The story revolves around its central character, played by Billie Piper, in what is undoubtedly her finest stage performance to date. Set in today’s London (complete with references to Sadiq Khan, Brexit and Boris), her life is falling in to place perfectly. Together with her boyfriend John, she has just bought a house and they both have successful careers, and so she turns to the next, logical path in their life together – having a child. It’s apparently not something he thought she wanted, but at 33, in a world where women are constantly reminded about their ticking biological clocks, she is starting to think differently about the future. Over the course of the play, we witness how what begins as a seemingly casual idea becomes the all-consuming focus of her life and how that affects not just her, but everyone around her.

It’s a timeless story, which will no doubt resonate with its audience and in this 21st century interpretation, Piper could so easily be any young, professional, modern woman in her early 30s, which is highlighted by her lack of a name (the programme simply referring to the role of “Her”). With so much opportunity and choice on offer to us today, it’s incredibly harrowing to watch as something out of her (and indeed all of our) control, can so devastate someone’s world.

With no interval, time passes quickly, sometimes by hours, sometimes by years, signposted by the two small screens above the stage, on to which chapters, complete with short descriptions, appear. Initially, this style felt a little jarring, but you soon adjust to its rhythm and as time moves forward and each scene faded to black, I found I was bracing myself for what I might see next before me. As is the case when watching some of the Greek classics, you sense tragedy is inevitable.

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Billie Piper is utterly incredible. Photo: Johan Persson

I admit that I hadn’t heard of the play before and having now seen it, I understand why it is described as one of the greatest female roles in drama. Indeed, I’m surprised it hasn’t been performed more and following in the footsteps of recent strong female roles including Medea at the National Theatre and Electra at the Old Vic, it’s a role that results in an astonishing performance from Ms. Piper, which together with recent stage successes in The Effect and Great Britain, mark her out as a truly talented actress. Her character is so very human and painfully believable that you could forget this isn’t real life unfolding before you, as she experiences the gauntlet of human emotion from love and happiness, to anxiety, fear, despair, jealousy, anger and indeed deep sadness and grief. It’s an emotional rollercoaster that doesn’t pause to catch its breath.

Lizzie Clachan’s set also adds to this intensity, as the audience sits on either side of a long, rectangular, perspex box. We observe the lives of the characters, seemingly trapped within its confines. It’s as if they are under the microscope and as Piper begins to unravel, the closed off nature of the stage setting enhances our sense of her isolation.

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John MacMillan as Victor. Photo: Johan Persson.

Although, Piper is the focus of Yerma, she is not the only one giving a strong performance in this production. Maureen Beattie is very good as her emotionally distant mother, who although she clearly loves her two daughters, is not very good at demonstrating it openly. John MacMillan brings a gentleness to her former boyfriend Victor, whose reappearance in her life a decade later brings with him the painful reminder of the child she chose not to keep when she didn’t think it was the right time.

However it’s Brendan Cowell’s moving portrayal of her partner John that stands out. He may seem rather unsupportive early on, focusing on his job more than his relationship, but as the play progresses you find yourself growing more and more sorry for him, as he watches the person he loves changing while he can do nothing to stop it. His chemistry with Piper is intense throughout, whether in the lighter, passionate early days, or in the darker, painful years that follow and their raw emotion is incredible, if not difficult to watch.

Simon Stone has done a fantastic job of updating the source material from its rural, farmland setting in Spain, to 2016’s London, in which although women’s place in society is very different, the struggles many face to conceive remain unchanged. He has made some changes to the underlying story. One in particular is very interesting and, although I won’t spoil it for those familiar with the play  was, in my view, a logical change that made perfect sense given Piper’s character’s emotional state. I also loved that some of the dialogue felt as though it was improvised by the actors in the moment, which again added to the realism of the piece.

In short, Yerma is a superb production and will without a doubt be one of my theatre highlights of the year. It is immensely powerful and manages to capture moments of wit, humour and love, as well as anger, sadness and despair and within which Billie Piper commands the stage in a performance worthy of all the accolades it will surely receive. It may be a difficult subject, which is sometimes painful and indeed heartbreaking to watch, but theatre of this standard should not be missed. Book your tickets now while you still can.

Yerma continues its run at the Young Vic until 24th September 2016. Running time is approximately 1 hour 50 minutes with no interval. Prices range from £10 – £35. For more information and availability visit the website here.

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