TW: domestic violence, difficulty conceiving
On opening night, a hauntingly lyrical musical refrain in softly-sung Spanish opens Angel in the House’s Yerma, infusing the packed BT Studio with an Andalusían folk-like air on a wintry Tuesday night in Oxford, whisking its audience away to a setting reminiscent of the play’s southern Spanish roots, and breathing a wistful and deeply nostalgic sense of yearning into a dream-like opening sequence, the calm before the storm in this new adaptation of Lorca’s rural tragedy.
As the eponymous protagonist lies peacefully on the ground, surrounded by flowers and bathed in soft lighting, there is an eerily funereal air to the opening of a play in which the central themes are fertility and unfulfilled desire.
It is as though a funeral is being thrown for Yerma’s fertility as her hands rest gently atop her hollow belly. Ironically, childless and alone, this is the point at which Yerma (Ceidra Moon Murphy) is most at peace during the play, setting the audience up for the persistent tension throughout the production between life and death, as an inability to conceive renders Yerma’s attempts to be a “real woman” futile in her eyes. This is sense is heightened by the newly pregnant María (Millie Tupper) with whom Yerma has a close friendship, rendered complex by Yerma’s extreme, all-consuming jealousy as María enters into the latter stages of pregnancy.
I was instantly taken in by the innocent, delicate portrayal of María, a newly pregnant, placid mother-to-be, whose fragility sits in contrast with Yerma’s ardent passions. This innocence, however, is quickly disrupted by Juan (Cameron Forbes) and Yerma’s ongoing and increasingly severe marital disputes, although a slight lack of development in characterisation leaves the audience wondering quite how these domestic disputes result in the violent end which Juan meets.
However, what the production lacked in character development, it made up for through subtlety and skilful acting, a particular highlight of which is the undercurrent of sexual tension and desire between Yerma and her first love Victor (Alex Fleming-Brown), portrayed more through coy gestures and lustful glances than through words, painting a poignant portrait of unfulfilled lust which sits in stark contrast with the passionless, sexless marriage with Juan that Yerma remains so committed to.
What the production exceeds itself in is the portrayal of the insidious and pervasive progression of Yerma’s paranoia and growing desperation at her inability to bear children, first, through an eerie soundtrack of the wailing baby which only our titular protagonist appears to be able to hear, and then through the cuttingly cruel voices of townspeople, signalling Yerma as the subject of the vicious attacks of the latest gossip of the town. Credit must be given to Flora Faulk for a set that complements this process of growing frustration.
Whilst some of the lyricism of the Spanish original is undoubtedly lost in translation, the Spanish essence of the original is mostly retained, the distinctly rural setting conveyed effectively through rustic accents and touches, incorporating elements of both fertility and the rural setting.