Federico García Lorca referred to Yerma as a “tragic poem”. In this recent translation from Ursula Rani Sarma, RADA brings us a moving and harrowing depiction of a woman’s slow descent into murderous insanity, propelled by her inability to conceive. I expected great things from the final year acting students of one of the world’s best-known drama schools, and was not disappointed.
Ella Prince’s performance as the eponymous protagonist was exceptionally poignant, coming into its own in the latter half of the play as the character’s composure slowly unravels. Yet even from the beginning, as a newlywed, happily picking flowers and delivering her husband’s lunch, Prince remarkably manages to convey a hint of the darkness that builds towards the play’s dramatic finale. Prince is supported by an equally impressive cast; other stand-out performances come from Heather Long as Maria, Naeem Hayat as Juan, and Cassie Layton as the old wise woman. The chorus of local, gossiping townsfolk is powerful in conveying the social pressures faced by an infertile woman in 1930s Spain.
Yerma translates as ‘barren’; a theme which permeates this production in content, set and sound. The infertility of the protagonist renders her a failure as a woman, in the eyes of both herself and those around her. Her physicality is defined in terms of absence; “I feel two blows of a hammer here instead of my baby’s mouth”, she cries as she thumps her chest. The scenery is a further consolidation of Yerma’s fruitlessness; a simple set of staggered steps, covered in red, desert-like earth and with minimal props. The music, performed alone by the impressive James Lascelles, is notably lacking in instrumental accompaniment.
For the author Lorca, a man killed for his anti-fascist politics, his homosexuality, and his suspicion of religion, the play ostensibly lacks progressive solutions. We are not led to challenge the view that the role of women is to produce children. The only character who forgives Yerma’s implied shortcoming is her irritating and unlikeable husband. However, this failure to accord their childlessness its due importance, in Yerma’s eyes, is its very cause. Rather than choosing to present us with an alternative, a strong woman who rejects the oppressive patriarchy, Lorca characteristically opts for a pessimistic presentation of society in its grim reality.
Director Burt Caesar refers to the play as an “essentially apolitical work” in his production notes. Whilst it is true that the pre-Spanish Civil war tensions are notably absent from this work, important social questions, which are deeply political, are raised through the script. The play is more than just a “tragic poem”; examining tensions between religion and secularity, the role of women, and the oppressive nature of peasant society during that period.
Overall, a powerful performance on all accounts. Sadly, this run has now finished, but you can catch the same bunch in London in their summer productions of Love for Love, When She Danced and Phaedra’s Love; head to RADA’s website for more details.