The astonishing naturalism of Billie Piper’s acting is there, right from the beginning of Yerma, Simon Stone’s visually stunning adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s 1934 play at New York City’s Park Avenue Armory. Piper's character (Her) is lounging, hornily and playfully on the floor of her and her partner John’s (Brendan Cowell) new London home.
There’s a champagne bottle, the room is full of fizz and silliness. They’re happy, ridiculously happy, smugly happy. It’s a cool house in a cool area of town. They’re cool. Everything is cool. It is very much the present day. Piper’s Her is a magazine editor and blogger. Nothing fazes her. She is expressive, in control, the boss of the place, sexy and sexed-up, and in love with John. They are your prototype ideal, young metropolitan couple.
But everything isn’t fine, and we know that because Stone's Yerma still has the same, tragically propulsive storyline as the original play, or “tragic poem” as Lorca had it – and that is Yerma or here Her’s desperate desire to have a child and her inability to accept that she cannot.
The play begins and ends in the same room, extreme happiness in its happy opening collapsing to terrible tragedy 100 minutes later, Piper now broken and slumped. Deservedly, Piper won a record-breaking number of acting awards when the show was performed in London.
Stone’s adaptation cleaves hard to elements of Lorca’s original story, but certainly not some of its key moments, especially its ending.
Lizzie Clachan’s exceptional design is so memorable that it becomes another character. The two sides of the Armory audience watch the action on sets of rising bleachers, through the walls of a see-through box. That box is used for multiple locations – Her and John’s home, Her’s office, and most stunningly Her’s garden – and the amazing visual trick, carried out right in front of us, is how the production team lay carpets and lay areas of grass, and add and removed trees, or garlands of colored lights, or transform the stage into a muddy, rainy music festival field, all in seconds of the theatre falling into darkness between the play’s multiple chapters.
These chapter are themselves signaled above the stage as flashing signs, with urgent choral voices playing over them. As emotional as you might find the play, its technical ingenuity may also take your breath away. How do they get everything on and off the stage so quickly, particularly a fully furnished living room?
Stone has said that the distinctive setting is because he wanted “to engage in an almost scientific dissection of a modern woman’s descent into personal tragedy. We watch her as if she’s under a microscope or inside a terrarium.”
And we do, and that – depending on what kind of theater spectator you are – will be an imperfect barrier or revelatory filter. Only later in the play does the box open up at each end; the sudden release from artificial confinement feels perverse in itself, so used we get to seeing the characters in the see-through box.
They are also miked up and sound magnified, so it is like watching a demonstration of some kind; their voices have a surround-sound naturalness to them, we hear every breath and sigh as well as every word.
The first note of an alarm is when Her says the extra rooms in this new place will be perfect for having children. John isn’t as keen, but ceremonially destroys her contraceptive pill packet. From there, the play accelerates from mild annoyance and upset to howling despair.
If the pace feels languorous at the beginning, it becomes more feverish as it progresses, or hurtles. Piper is utterly convincing, painfully so, but the play would benefit from scenes that would allow her pain to accrue and marinate in front of us. On stage, the character transitions can feel as sudden as the stunning scenery changes.
Piper’s supporting cast are also excellent: Maureen Beattie is Helen: Scottish, brisk, and cool with her children; she is practical, not emotional and there is a powerful scene, that benefits from not being overplayed and manages to be both comic and tragic, when daughter asks mother to hug her. The latter’s acquiescence and discomfort are painful in every way.
Charlotte Randle understatedly plays Mary, Her’s sister, who can conceive, and does. The relationship between the sisters hinges on Mary’s child-bearing versus Her’s struggle to conceive, leading to conflict between the siblings; Mary ignorant of Her’s jealousy. Victor (John Macmillan) is the calm, slim and handsome ex-boyfriend who comes back into Her’s life, like a Hugh Grant character from a Richard Curtis film – stiff, polite, dorkishly funny. But this old relationship also has a meaningful tragedy embedded in it, and in Her’s troubled present day, Victor seems like an answer.
The oddest character is Des (Thalissa Teixeira), Her’s young, thrusting, insensitive, click-obsessed editor, who relishes Her’s painful entries into the blog as the readers numbers mount.
There’s one particularly bizarre scene in which she claims that Her’s writing “is journalism” (which it plainly isn’t; it is a form of deeply confessional, personal journalism, not news journalism), and then lipsmacks her way through the most awful, personally exposing tragedy that the journalist has written up. In the land of Journalist Stereotypes in Fiction, that might feel as accurately shady as what an editor may relish, but it rings untrue.
The culture of online candor is, however, all too true: Stone's play supplements its main tragedy by asking what is secret, what is open, what is private, what is public?
All these characters reflect to a souring Her something she is not – whether able to reproduce, or move forward coolly through trauma, or discount the messiness of human emotion, or simply fall in love and have a family. Instead, she and John progress through ever-more expensive rounds of IVF, while their relationship fractures.
Her wants everything she sees around her, so near and yet so far; the police have to warn her from not looking at children in a local playground. The grassy lawn with the tree Her plants in the hope that it bodes well for the sprouting of new life becomes a blasted heath of disappointment and loss.
Soon, the glass box becomes a self-imploding prison of that same loss. Piper’s destructive despair is both loud (off she goes to a music festival where she bumps into John and Victor lookalikes) and hushed, as is Cowell’s, whose own desperation – to do all he can to love and support Her, and realize this is not enough – is its own searing tragedy.
There is no doubting the devastation at the end of the play, and Piper’s performance is, as its adulatory London reviews rightly said, standout-stunning. But the staccato transitions and attenuated length of some scenes, the play’s stop-start feeling and telegraphing on how a scene may end, overly-stylize the shock of Yerma, and Her's terrible decline.
Stone's play is like watching a series of supremely performed peaks and troughs. It is a powerful production for sure, even if sometimes you find yourself wanting to sit longer with its words, and with Her herself to fully understand her tragedy, besides taking a ringside seat for her graphic personal implosion.
Yerma is at the Park Avenue Armory, NYC until April 21. Book tickets here.