It is not often in theatre that you find a performance of such blistering intensity that it leaves you entirely shattered but this is indeed the case with Billie Piper, who gives a veritable tour de force as the title character in Simon Stone’s updated version of Federico Garcia Lorca’s great 1934 play Yerma (Young Vic) which stone also directs.
The action is set in the cosmopolitan, contemporary London of today. In seven swift chapters, from Conception to Coming Home, displayed on screens above the stage, it charts the way longing for a child becomes an obsession which destroys a young women’s life and the lives of those around her.
In a nod to the universal nature of the story’s themes our protagonist is given no name but referred to as ‘her’. We first meet her when she appears to be destined to be the girl who gets it all. Sprawled on a white carpet she has just moved to her new home with John, the man she loves, when she conceives the idea she wants a baby. She’s a much lauded journalist, he’s a successful businessman. It all looks too good to be true. But as we follow their lives through five agonising years of a ticking biological clock, their world disintegrates as her failure to get pregnant becomes the one salient truth of their lives. “We want to have a life. We have each other and my empty womb” she cries on her wedding night.
Lizzie Clachan’s oblong, glass-based set is a most original and concentrates the drama on the protagonists while suggesting how they are trapped in a situation from which there is no easy escape.
But it is Billie Piper’s performance as ‘her’ which really electrifies in this raw and difficult role. She is superb at conveying the agony of the protagonist, moving seamlessly from the laughingly flirtations to the absolutely distraught in incremental and beautifully described steps. Indeed, the character she creates is initially charming and gregarious, an endearing whirlwind of self-depreciating wit and painful self-awareness. By the end, she is unafraid to appear unattractive and desperate, but en route what is impressive is the way the light seems to die from her eyes, she has lost the will to live. Strong support is provided by Brendan Cowell, in the thankless role of the understanding husband, Maureen Beattie as her dour, distant mother and Charlotte Randle as her friend and sister.
In short, then, this is a challenging play for today and a mesmerising study of isolation and obsession.
Plays at the Young Vic until Saturday 24 September 2016
Box office: 020 7922 2923Last modified: August 17, 2016