Yerma is an arresting piece of theatre that twists through different images and questions like the troubled mind of the eponymous character. It is a story of a woman broken by her simple desire to give life to something, stuck within a society of female isolationism, male absence and constricting social conventions. The play is never static, beginning in what seems to be a simple tale of forbidden desire; it moves away to delve into mental anguish, marital discord and an unsettling world of social convention, taboos and suspicion. In Yerma herself (Annabelle Haworth) we see the trauma of someone trying desperately to cling to hope, while seeing her one wish – a child – realised in everyone and everything else. It is a production very much in the mind of the titular role and Haworth performs emotional anguish to a distressing peak, by turns expressing love, anguish and utter despair, while all the time leaving the audience shocked by the ease with which a young mind can be derailed so strongly by as simple a reality as the inability to conceive.
Such instability is reflected in Amara Heyland-Morrin’s direction. One scene shows Yerma cradling a fabricated child in her arms, illuminated by the sea she may as well be drowning in, while a violin off-stage adds to the scene’s tension and unease. In fact, off-stage was used very intelligently throughout, characters were often heard entering, but stayed off-stage, making the audience aware of the watcher in the darkness and the implications it had for those on-stage. This was, more often than not, Juan (Gabriel Wheble), Yerma’s husband, who came to represent the power ‘honour’ can have over a society. Terrified of what people might say, Juan is happier to have a wife as an ornament on the mantlepiece, something to reflect his success, but do nothing. ‘Cattle stay in their field, but you won’t stay in your house,’ he so callously tells Yerma, the line delivered by Wheble with an arresting mix of vitriol and honesty that made even this figure of stereotyped convention hard to pin down in something so simple.
The whole play leaves the audience questioning – considering – throughout. Nothing is as clear cut as we would like it to be. Is Yerma the poor victim of an unhappy marriage and the gossip of others, or is she doomed by a deep-set naivety? Is the rural society depicted one of conservative couples, blessed with families, or is there something darker in its obsession with childbirth? Is the elderly woman (played by Bathsheba Lockwood Brook with an air that seemed to breathe the cynical wisdom of age) one who can see past convention – can free herself from it – or is she just another facet of its ensnaring capabilities? These questions are just some of the many that spun in my head during the play, and still do. Yerma comes together in its staging, production and performance to deliver an unsettling image of what society, conventions and ‘what people think’ can do to people: how you can imprison in the name of love and relegate female desire for life to self-inflicted hysteria. With a performance that set the mind alive with its theatricality and provoking questions, and an ending that made me truly shiver, Yerma is a production not to be missed.