Yerma, Hysteria and the Wily Objet petit a

Billy Piper (Her) in Yerma at Park Avenue Armory (Photo by Stephanie Berger)

“It was the opposite of nihilism, it was more a case of too much care-ism,” quipped my friend as we stepped out onto Park Avenue, having just been exposed to Australian director Simon Stone’s adaptation of Yerma, based on Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca’s play of the same name, which debuted in 1934. I say “exposed” given that a play like this strikes personal chords in many. It’s the story of a childless woman named “Her” (played out vivaciously by Billie Piper) who struggles to conceive with her partner John (a perfect counterpart in Brendan Cowell), which leads her down a path of extreme destruction. On the page, a character like Her is patently irritating, given this is a 1 hour and 40 minute performance without interval, of what is essentially an elongated tantrum from a self-absorbed, grown-ass woman. However, Piper performs a Her that is uncomfortably real and at times, relatable. She’s either someone you know very intimately, or have kept at a distance for their toxicity.

What makes her tolerable is, in part, Stone’s “portion control” structure, putting his skill set as a film director to good use. Though she appears in every scene, each scene is like a dose of Her that ends abruptly, switching to the next chapter and a rearrangement of the ensemble cast, who each deliver performances that are idiosyncratic and awkward in their own right. Swift scene-changes bring a miraculous transformation, from the beige on beige banality of a fresh blank canvas living room to a luminous green garden to wet brown muck. The stage design, described by Stone as a “terrarium,” encases the performers in a glass box, with the audience flanking them on either side. Such a stark aesthetic conjures a sense that Her, and those around her, exist in an insular bubble, contextualized as sociological case studies. While things begin with a sense of possibility and playfulness with the couple buying their first home, the situation rapidly disintegrates. The soundscape between scene-changes constantly ratchets up, beginning with a cacophony of female vocals that smacked somewhat of the Dirty Projectors and progressing into a more foreboding aural assault with heavy rock that delineated the “descent” phase of the narrative.

Brendan Cowell (John) and Billy Piper (Her) in Yerma at Park Avenue Armory (Photo by Stephanie Berger)

Her is the designated “arsehole” of her family, to paraphrase her emotionally reticent, matter-of-fact, “unmotherly” mother. Her doesn’t answer phone calls from her sister and is the one who gets left behind, in part, by choice. Her sister presents the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” argument of motherhood, falling pregnant unintentionally while on the contraceptive pill, much to Her’s chagrin. Her also writes a personal blog for millennials, on which she is fervently candid about her family dynamic and infertility grievances. Her’s online life reinforces her increasing reclusivity from real life and those who care for her. She writes about the pleasure she took from her sister’s miscarriage, and of her grievances and sexual mishaps with John. Eventually, Her and John go bankrupt after multiple failed attempts at IVF. It is her unyielding obsession that drives her marriage toward an impossible impasse. One can’t help but feel also for John, who, having tried to satisfy the needs of his wife, grows bitter and resentful in the process.

Cut to after the performance, my friend and I, still a little shell-shocked, make our way to the station, passing through Upper East Side opulence. Scenery in mind, one can’t help but recognize Her and John as a not-so-hyperbolic couple, going beyond their means both financially and emotionally. In a city like New York or London (where the play is set), you need more than a considerable amount of stability to pursue childbirth in later life. As a woman at Her’s age who cannot even afford catastrophic health insurance, babies start to look like luxuries for the privileged and financially stable, a bit like mortgages and PhDs. In times of such biological bleakness and economic scarcity, what does it mean to exist if and or when our reproductive organs fail us, or can’t feasibly be used even if we wanted to?

Billy Piper (Her) and Brendan Cowell (John) in Yerma at Park Avenue Armory (Photo by Stephanie Berger)

For Her, there is no alternative purpose–there are only dichotomies. There is either baby or no baby, love or hate, praise or blame. And once she has exhausted all others to blame, she turns to herself. Her punishing standards drive her to hysteria. At one point, she seems to even word play around the hysteric, by uttering “no more wondering…” This made me think of the “wandering womb,” a term invented by the ancient Greeks, meaning literally a dislodgment of the uterus, which was once thought to explain female hysteria. In Yerma, the hysteric entangles mind with body, spawned by a sense of abandonment, of not being loved enough, or empathized with enough. She fails to see any form of abundance around her.

A hysteric like Her is an unabashed expression of societal contradictions. Historically, failed harvests and infertility were often blamed on witches. Now, women blame themselves for not “thinking ahead” about their biological clocks, but such culpability is, of course, much more complicated. John’s final monologue brings the male perspective into play. She is not the only one grieving–he has also lost the woman he loves. He too is affected by paradoxical impositions and unmet expectations.

Billy Piper (Her) and Brendan Cowell (John) in Yerma at Park Avenue Armory (Photo by Stephanie Berger)

While I don’t necessarily concur with Stone’s directorial statement that “Lorca is a mystery that needs to be solved,” what is distilled in this adaptation is an impalpable continuum of pain, the manic obsession with lack that cannot be obliterated. Lorca conveyed the spirit of the underdog, the have-nots, and what he himself called “essential melancholy.” He understood the tragedy of frustrated desire, but also the value of living with scarcity, and as such, he sided with those that had nothing but frugal lives to live.  

The final scenes of Yerma return to the primal earthiness of Lorca’s poetry, as Her writhes in moist, muddy earth. A bereft audience is left with many “what if” questions: How might life have been different for Her had she not been confined to her tunnel vision version of a satisfying life? What if Her and John had embarked on other paths, together or apart, beyond punishing standards? Perhaps it might have behoved Her to consider Donna Haraway’s mantra Make Kin Not Babies!” Or some post-Freudian psychoanalysis, à la Adam Phillips, on missing out on certain boats in life:

“We have an abiding sense, however obscure and obscured, that the lives we do lead are informed by the lives that escape us. That our lives are defined by loss, but loss of what might have been; loss, that is, of things never experienced.”

Yerma, North American Premiere
A Park Avenue Armory and Young Vic Production
Simon Stone, Director
Lizzie Clachan, Set Designer
Alice Babidge, Costume Designer
James Farncombe, Lighting Designer
Stefan Gregory, Music and Sound Designer
Julia Horan, CDG Casting
Cast: Maureen Beattie, Brendan Cowell, John MacMillan, Billie Piper, Charlotte Randle, Thalissa Teixeira
March 27–April 21, 2018

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