Playwright/Director Simon Stone is an alchemist. He’s taken a small, bleak, ambiguous Spanish tale and crafted a volcanic, contemporary tragedy. Production values are inspired, acting and directing ferocious. Billie Piper should be carried off on our shoulders.
Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1934 play is set in a rural village where organic cycles are paramount. It centers on a farmer’s wife obsessed with conceiving a child – as expected by upbringing, community, and her time of life. The woman is driven (by madness) to murder her unwilling husband. Stone has moved the action to current, middle class London, replete with gentrification, label consciousness, and bawdy, freewheeling sex.
Billie Piper and Brendan Cowell
As brilliantly conceived by Designer Lizzie Clachan, the entire scenario takes place in a glass rectangle (Petrie dish) with audience on two sides. Chapter names and the passing of time are clocked by overhead projection. During and overlapping blackouts, we hear classical music, feverish noise or invented choral work manipulating tension; appropriate to action. (Stefan Gregory, Sound)
In a magical moment, the entire box is tastefully furnished, a green grass garden hung with lights or boasting with a not inconsiderable tree, barren, pouring rain. (Jack Henry James, Video) Abruptness and being startled serve. (Lighting, James Farncombe)
Billie Piper and Charlotte Randle
She, called “Her,” representing an archetype (Billie Piper), and longtime partner, John (Brendan Cowell), have just closed on a house. They’re excited and playful. She’s randy, her mate somewhat less eager. John is in finance. His job requires considerable traveling which is just starting to chafe on the relationship. She’s a 33 year-old magazine editor with a trendy, feminist blog and an imprudent, millennial assistant named Des (credibly irritating Thalassa Teixeira).
Out of nowhere the heroine’s biological clock kicks in with a vengeance, surprising even herself. The pair have space and a garden. It’s time for progeny. “You hate babies!” John exclaims querulously. Still, seeing how much she wants a child, he agrees (i.e. acquiesces) dramatically stomping on her birth control pills to cement commitment.
Maureen Beattie and Billie Piper
Meanwhile Her sister, Mary (low key, solid Charlotte Randle), accidentally gets pregnant, though her alcoholic husband’s cheating on her. Bad timing all around. Sardonic mom Helen (pitch perfect Maureen Beattie), having never been maternal, is no comfort on either front .
Months pass. Mary gives birth. Her sister babysits. “How am I going to get pregnant if you’re away all the time?!” she rails at John. Cracks begin to show. He refuses to get tested. More months pass. Ex-lover Victor (John Macmillan) is hired to work in Her department. She’s drawn to what-ifs. John keeps traveling. Years pass. John walks in on Victor and Her drunk and flirty, ostensibly working late. He realizes the extent of his lover’s need and agrees to in vitro fertilization. They marry. More years pass.
Brendan Cowell and Billie Piper
We watch the relationship unravel. Is John doing enough? Does he really want a child? The couple argue, scream, accuse. Certainly he’s going through the motions…and every penny they have. Nothing works. Nothing works! She’s tormented; volatile. Actions grow irrational. Anyone out there remember Olivia de Haviland in The Snake Pit?
This is a GREAT, GUTSY performance. Billie Piper (Her) mentally and emotionally eviscerates herself on stage. The sexy, warm woman whom we first meet seems so sympathetic, so reasonable, it’s heartrending to watch Her progressively spiral out of control. (Imagine how John feels.) Piper gives 150 percent. She blazes, vibrates, grasps, strikes out, and mines something so deep and desperate, it’s painful to watch and impossible to turn away.
Brendan Cowell meets Piper blow for dramatic blow. John’s agony rises out of love, helplessness, and secret ambivalence. The actor shows wrenching interior battles, frenzied concern, and ultimate desolation.
As Director, Simon Stone helms with viscera, humanity, and visual acuity. Exchanges distinctively speak to history. Piper and Cowell work with such physical abandon, they must be shedding pounds with each performance. Once begun, intensity swells with as sure a hand as I’ve experienced in theater.
A rain soaked denouement is palpably agonizing, the end cataclysmic. We walk out, most quietly, exhausted and stupefied.
Photos by Stephanie Berger
Opening: Billie Piper
Park Avenue Armory presents
A Young Vic Production of
Yerma by Simon Stone
After Federico Garcia Lorca
Directed by Simon Stone
Park Avenue Armory, between 66th and 67th Streets
Through April 21, 2018