Yerma - NT Live
The Young Vic
31 August 2017
Director: Simon Stone
Cast: Maureen Beattie, Brendan Cowell, John MacMillan, Billie Piper, Charlotte Randle, Thalissa Teixeira
There are all kinds of artistic reasons why plays ought to be experienced live in a theatre rather than on a cinema screen, just as there are logistical and economic arguments to be made for extending the potential audience for a production far beyond the walls of a London theatre. There is artistic merit also in making important and entertaining works available for a wider audience to experience, and NT Live's cinema seasons are undoubtedly making use of the technology available to successfully reach and entertain a huge worldwide audience with High Definition live broadcasts. Their latest production of Yerma brilliantly demonstrates the advantages of such a venture, while also finding a way to address the artistic questions it raises.
Aside from the obvious advantage of actually being there and witnessing an unforgettable evening of drama in the flesh, the main reason why theatre is best experienced live is that theatre must essentially and vitally be of the moment. It must address issues that are relevant to the lives of the audience of its day, and a production of a work shouldn't really be preserved in amber, in celluloid or as digital bits, but should be left as a memory for others to bring something original, fresh and revitalising to the next new production. As far as the NT Live are concerned, their broadcasts do actually have a limited lifespan, extended for international runs and an occasional 'encore' performance, but - so far at least - they have not been released for home viewing on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming; they remain essentially a 'theatrical experience'.
As for fresh, new and revitalising, that's certainly the case for Simon Stone's reworking of Federico García Lorca's Yerma. I had no idea quite how radical a rewriting it would actually prove to be, and yet at the same time it manages to fully address the poetic qualities of the original and, just as importantly, the essence of what the work is about. So I wasn't exactly expecting rural Spanish ladies in shawls and Andalusian gypsy dancers in the Young Vic's production, but if you had told me that it was going to address the theme of a woman's longing for a child in the context of a trendy London couple, where the wife is a blogger/journalist and her husband is unable to satisfy her desire to conceive because he is frequently away on business trips, I don't think I would have found the idea appealing or - as someone familiar with Lorca's works - likely to have the same emotional depth or power as the original. And I would have been very, very wrong.
The manner in which the director adapts and presents Yerma is extraordinary and compelling, even when those initial doubts look like being borne out by a radical contemporary theatrical presentation on a stage surrounded by a glass box. The actors proceed to deliver rapid-fire dialogue and improbably quick-witted responses speaking over the top of each other in a series of short jump-cut isolated scenes. The dialogue scripted by Stone - I'm fairly sure Boris, Sadiq and blogging weren't referenced in Lorca's original - has however the remarkable property of appearing naturalistic and improvised, while also being poetically precise in not just the surface expression of the woman's condition, but the social undercurrents and familial tensions that it also essentially takes in. It's also acutely observant of how the desire to be a mother becomes not as much an obsession as an overwhelming need that threatens to destroy everything else around her.
The short scenes meanwhile, separated by captions that divide the work into chapters and account for the passing of months and years of anxious ticking-clock barrenness, manage to create a flow and increasing dramatic tension of their own. The set dressing often consists of nothing more than a white carpet for interiors and a grass 'carpet' for exteriors, with a tree symbolically withering over time, but despite the forced artificiality of it all, it feels utterly naturalistic in its progress, retaining rather than dissipating tension and building upon it by poetically layering sentiments of expectation and disappointment, realisation and denial on top of one another. The audience is barely able to take their eyes off the screen. Or indeed the stage. Or, in reality, the performers.
Which brings us to another matter that differentiates the NT Live cinema experience considerably from the live in the theatre experience; the use of multiple cameras to jump cut to different angles, to present close-ups and long-shots, to present an entirely different view of the work than the director might have intended for a play's theatrical presentation. When presenting a performance for live broadcast, NT Live seem however to adapt their style to the layout of the theatre and with consideration for the specific demands and strengths of each individual work. In the case of Yerma, the montage effect of Simon Stone's adaptation seems to be a perfect fit for a cinematic presentation, with the additional benefit that it is LIVE, in the moment, part of whole with a consistent follow-through rather than an assembled collection of isolated scenes shot days and months apart.
The true strength of the Young Vic's Yerma however ultimately rests on the remarkable performances of the actors. It's an acting style too that doesn't rely on grand theatrical gestures but is capable of presenting more nuanced expression which can be naturalistic for cinema audience but at the same time convey a poetic quality that is rarer and difficult to achieve within the realism demanded in cinema. I had of course seen the high praise reserved for Billie Piper in the quotes from the press reviews, but it still doesn't prepare you for the fact that this seems to go beyond mere performance, taking the viewer on a tumultuous, shocking and sometimes harrowing journey. It's a remarkable experience, and what is undoubtedly charged in the theatre may even gain another level of intensity on the screen, particularly when the close interaction of the cast, the precision of the writing, the pacing and timing of the delivery continually raise the stakes towards what can only be a devastating conclusion. Whether you experience it in the theatre or on the screen, I expect this is one production that will live long in the memory.