The Theatreguide.London Review
Gate Theatre Autumn-Winter 2011
Anthony Weigh's new version of Garcia Lorca's drama, and Natalie Abrahami's spare production, strip away almost all indications of specific time and place, and therein lie both their strengths and their severe limitations.
We are able to focus on the raw emotions and psychology of a woman desperate to have a child her husband won't and perhaps can't give her, and are spared any cod Spanishness in setting or performances. But we also lose all sense of historical, cultural and religious context.
Lorca's play was as much about the culture as the individuals, and even if we accept that re-focussing, the play loses too much if we don't see why Yerma feels such a failure, why she is willing to accept so little from her marriage, why resorting to gypsy magic is such a desperation move, why she doesn't have the words to talk about her feelings, and what pressures to conform the inescapable outside world imposes on her.
Indeed, both adaptor and director seem determined to go in the opposite direction, reducing the cast and setting the play in Ruth Sutcliffe's starkly barren set so that Yerma and Juan seem to live in an isolated wilderness with no connection whatever to an outside society – you get the sense that Yerma's one neighbour and friend must live miles away in an Australian-like desert.
There's nothing wrong with changing Lorca's tale of a woman driven by the fear that she is failing her cultural imperatives into one about woman driven by her own biological clock (as long as you acknowledge that this isn't exactly Lorca's play any more).
The problem in this case is that the shift makes the play thinner, reducing the heroine's complex emotions to something more mechanical and the rich texture of the original to a play that, for all its raw power, keeps threatening to slip into little more than a case history from a psychology textbook.
Given a character who, stripped of her cultural context, sometimes seems improbably naïve and docile, Ty Glaser uses Yerma's youth as her keystone, investing her with a teenager's instinctive cheeriness and idealism to carry her through much of the play.
Hasan Dixon's Juan remains a blank for too long, with the eventual revelation of a secret past unconvincing; the core of his character only becomes clear when he is allowed to verbalise the very limited expectations he has of life. Alison O'Donnell makes the neighbour a cheery, healthy presence while letting us see that that's largely because her life is uncomplicatedly following the cultural formula.
Perhaps the only way to write the stark psychological study Weigh and Abrahami want is to start from scratch. Even if you don't know Lorca's original, you are likely to be haunted throughout this version of Yerma by the sense that something is missing.
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Review - Yerma - Gate Theatre 2011