Review By Thomas Gregory
When Federico García Lorca wrote Yerma, the second part of his “Rural Trilogy” in 1934, he had very specific criticisms of society in mind. It was unfair, in his eyes, that the identity of Woman was wrapped entirely in the ability to give birth, and that the only acceptable form of sexual congress was between husband and wife. He was angry about the aggressive nature of Catholicism and wanted to remind his audiences of the pagan roots of the natural world they harnessed.
Yerma is the tale of a farmer’s wife. From a good family, and of honourable nature, all she desires in life is to be a mother. But, year after year, she is left without a child, and bitterness grows inside her. Her husband, Juan, does not understand, and she feels alienated and lost without being able to obtain the identity of motherhood.
It might be an unusual move in today’s political climate to eschew the social commentary found in “Yerma”. However, this is exactly what Melanie Thomas decided to do when directing Dionysus Theatre’s production of the Spanish play.
Instead of harshly criticising the community for its expectations of young Yerma, Thomas presents the women of the town as empathetic (if not outright concerned) as to the plight of a person who only ever wanted to be a parent. Yerma’s desires are hers alone, her passion for being a mother being one that has nothing to do with external expectations.
This decision to pass the “blame” onto Yerma, rather than society, leads to wide-ranging consequences in character interpretation. While the community itself is seen in a more forgiving light, Yerma’s husband becomes all the more villainous. His ambivalence towards becoming a parent is seen as unsympathetic and selfish, rather than progressive, while his open declaration of these feelings is presented as controlling, rather than freeing.
To explore the story in such a light is no mean feat. Sometimes the text refuses to lend itself to this version of the story, and those on stage must hope that the audience takes meaning from their performance more than their words.
Fortunately, this is a feat well within the abilities of the actors in this play.
Freya Timmer-Arends sells the role of an internally tormented Yerma with passion and empathy. Timmer-Arends’ portrayal is of a woman with a singular goal, willing to give up her other desires to become an honourable mother. As much as we believe her attraction to Victor, we also believe she would never cheat on her husband. In fact, it is this insistence on living “an honourable life” that holds the audience back from turning on the blind selfishness that causes her to treat all other women with jealousy and anger.
Now the unsympathetic villain of the piece, far less forgiven than in other interpretations, Yerma’s husband, Juan, could easily have become a stereotype. Alexander Loadman refuses to take the easy route and instead produces a complex farmer - one full of jealousy, ignorance, and rage. His violence is rarely overplayed and the conclusion of his role is one we celebrate instead of mourn.
All the actors in this production hold their own, with not one noticeable failure. However, it is worth specifically mentioning one other outstanding performance, that of Catherine Baker. As another woman in the community without a child, Baker’s character is very much the fool as used by Shakespeare. She offers comedy in a tragedy, but her words could very much be those of the chorus - offering a possible solution, if not the only alternative to Yerma’s situation. Baker’s sense of comic timing and understanding of her own character’s role of “other” means the small role has a longer-lasting effect than it would in other performances of the character.
The set for Yerma is simple - a single tree, its flowers offering an autumnal moment in time, reflective of how the main character sees her world. IT, and a single chair, are all that are needed for the play to transport us around the town, fields and home of the characters.
The stage is used to its fullest, and the presentation of the actors are full of life. Lazy directors might have their community ladies stand in a huddle while they gossip. Instead, Baker has hers chat as they fold laundry, the hypnotic rhythm of their actions reflecting the contentment of the women.
The costuming is all that dates this production, and perfectly reminds us of the early 20th Century,agrarian world in which it is set. The addition of laurel headpieces adds to the pagan spiritualism found naturally in the play.
The production is constantly moving, but never busy - each moment clearly defined and necessary. While the addition of short dance pieces might not be to everyone’s taste, they do offer a sense of the spiritual turmoil within Yerma and the themes of spiritual warfare that weave their way through Lorca’s text.
Special note must be given to the choreography of violence. Joshua Bell, the fight choreographer, worked wonders with the already-praised actors as each moment of physical struggle was tense and confronting. The presentation of domestic abuse is honest, raw, and frightening. It would be wise to prepare oneself for such scenes, especially if they are potentially triggering.
Yerma is a play with an interesting history. Considered by some to be “the last straw” that led to Lorca’s execution, it was rarely performed professionally in the second half of the 20th Century. In 2016, Billie Piper stunned the world with her performance for the National Theatre, and the play was given a new moment in the world. Many other companies have tried to approach Lorca’s theatrical work, few with much success.
While Dionysus Theatre may have taken the setting of the play back to its original home, and was more respectful to Lorca’s original text, its confronting portrayal of a woman tortured by her desires deserves to be considered among those few great productions in existence. Pained and poetic, this tragedy leaves you powerfully traumatised, with a profound appreciation and empathy for all those who have suffered like Yerma, both before and since.