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  • Jonathan Kalb

Myth, Motherhood and Desperation

Last Monday, about forty minutes into the final preview of Yerma at the Park Avenue Armory—Simon Stone’s breathtakingly intense Lorca adaptation from London’s Young Vic—an unhappy thud came out of the dark during a tricky scene change. The house lights rose, the show was paused for a half hour for “technical problems,” and then abruptly cancelled. I’d been rapt when the action stopped, not least because the scene just played was a pretty surprising addendum to a tale famously focused on a woman desperate to get pregnant. The scene showed Her (the new name of Yerma, which means barren in Spanish) and her husband John lounging around a slick modern living room, blissfully cooing and fondling a baby—a real one, not previously seen.

Later in the week I returned to Yerma with rebooked tickets, saw a full performance, and had another surprise. That baby scene wasn’t in the play! Instead, the show continued at that point with a scene in which Her returned her sister Mary’s newborn son after babysitting him. What was going on?

The bright and cluttered living-room set I’d seen on Monday, glowing with the chaotic warmth and contentment of family life, never appeared at any other point in the action. And all the show’s other scenes were visually chilly, vacant and arid. Yerma is performed inside a claustrophobic glass-walled box designed by Lizzie Clachan, with the audience seated on opposing risers. It’s a voyeuristic arrangement that feels like you’re staring into an animal cage. Evidently, the original plan for the show was for everything except the baby scene to be pointedly sparse inside this cage, which exchanges bare expanses of plain pile carpet for plain green grass, plain dead grass, and plain mud.

Afterward, I asked a friendly-looking running-crew guy for an explanation. He readily told me that the baby scene isn’t included every night. The producers feel that the scene is pointless if the baby isn’t completely placid, so the scene is skipped on nights when he doesn’t cooperate. I felt lucky to have seen the scene—a fleeting, quasi-fantastical glimpse of the happy family Her will long for but never get. I also felt the public had a right to know about the two versions of the show.

My main reason for telling this story, though, is that the extraordinary contrast effect of the baby scene highlights the chief strength and the chief limitation of Stone’s remarkable adaptation. The actors in this production are unforgettably vivid, fearless and honest—particularly Billie Piper as Her, a slow-building thunderstorm. These adults are as impossible to look away from as that baby. At the same time, the joyless, sterile environment they’re in (almost all the time) underscores what a thorny problem modernizing Lorca is. Transferring a mythic tale like Yerma to a modern, middle-class milieu may not wholly kill its sweaty, elemental essence but it does shrivel and stress it to the point where the animal looks like a completely different species.

Lorca’s Yerma (1934) is a tale of peasants and farmers. Its tragic story of a woman’s increasingly frantic longing for motherhood is rooted in nature, the earthy rhythms, local mores and folk traditions of a small village that might as well be outside of time. The action is suffused with music and lyric poetry and is anything but urbane. The closest it comes to overt politics (apart from its allegory of barrenness) is its idiosyncratic mixture of pagan and Christian iconography, which offended Lorca’s stiff-necked enemies before the Spanish civil war.

Simon Stone has transformed Lorca’s young, presumably illiterate protagonist, married to a remote and authoritarian sheep farmer chosen by her father, into a self-assured, media-savvy editor and “life style and culture” blogger at Britain’s “second most important paper.” Her is a liberated, feisty 33-year-old with confident sexual agency and a partner of choice. John, played by Brendan Cowell, is a hunky businessman, cluelessly laddish but basically affectionate and benign. Instead of disappearing into the fields for days on end like Lorca’s Juan, John jets off to business meetings and misses important stuff like a birthday, a moving day, and many monthly fertility windows.

This marriage will be highly relatable to the British and American theatergoing class. John and Her are liberal, tolerant, handsome, ambitious, and “completely honest” about sex. They talk openly about porn, birth control, body hair, body odor, fantasies, stray attractions, and countless other explicit matters that, tellingly, do more to drive them apart than draw them closer. You can’t help thinking that preserving a few zones of privacy and mystery might have brought more intimacy and empathy.

As in Lorca, a love complication is dangled and dropped. An old flame named Victor (John MacMillan) turns up, wonders why things ended between them, then leaves town. Frustrated at her inability to conceive, Her begins detaching from reality. The process begins with a confusion of her public and private obligations. She allows her 21-year-old assistant Des (Thalissa Teixeira) to goad her into spicing up her blog with intimate details from her life, thereby betraying the trust of John, her sassy academic mother, and her maddeningly fertile sister. The amoral online world thus replaces the busybody town gossips in Lorca who act as a chorus-cum-morality police. Yerma and Her both ruin their reputations by talking recklessly in public about wanting to get pregnant. Her ruins her career as a journalist too.

For about two thirds of the action I thought all of this was fascinating, impressively precise, and very sensitively thought out. My reservations about it arose when the story moved into its extended crisis. At a certain point, Her plunges into a self-destructive spiral that involves, in rapid succession, stalking playgrounds, having anonymous sex in fields, losing her job, and demanding so many expensive IVF treatments that the couple’s money runs out, they lose their house, split up, and worse. Because very few clarifying details about all this are given, the story’s plausibility takes a big hit in its rush-rush final section.

What most disturbs about Her’s breakdown, though, isn’t lack of realism but rather the perpetuation of longstanding pernicious myths about women. Simon Stone writes in a program note that Her is “a woman who exists everywhere in the world all the time.” Really? I can accept—barely—Lorca’s Yerma as a timeless mythic paradigm. The universalizing lyricism of the older play’s rural locale, along with its carefully preserved ambiguity about how much Yerma’s madness is due to biology, prepare us to see her in the broadest possible light, even as myth. Not so with a woman as familiar to us as Her.

Stone’s character is steeped in the minutiae of contemporary, urban middle-class life. All the details about fertility treatments, ovulation cycles, abortion, first and second wave feminism, Twitter trends, sexual tastes, psychotherapy, home furnishings, yuppie work schedules, and more make it impossible to view her story within a mythic frame. So much detail lends the action a clinical feel, especially given the laboratory-like setting. On the one hand this familiarity sharpens our interest but on the other it makes us question everything the characters do and say. We can’t help seeing that their problems are due to practical choices rather than timeless or tragic inevitabilities (including biology). And in that light, the play’s violent conclusion seems to perpetuate a “desperate woman” stereotype.

This stereotype may be ancient, and it’s certainly still common—in no small measure because of ubiquitous IVF nightmare stories. But it’s anything but harmless. It’s as destructive today as it ever was, undermining women’s dignity and autonomy and even fueling legal efforts to restrict their reproductive decisionmaking.

Simon Stone, who surely knows all this, evidently decided to deploy the trope anyway in the belief that the performances in his show were powerful enough make us forget the problem and grasp back at myth. At least for me, that didn’t work. In my world, you simply can’t have your mythical cake and eat it realistically too.

Photos by Stephanie Berger

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