Theatrically speaking, it seems not much has changed in 21 years. In 1997, the New York Times’ first-chair critic Ben Brantley was “open-mouthed, grateful, admiring, and shaken.” Last month, he was “bruised, breathless, and grateful.” Each time, the source of his fervor was an actress, or more specifically, a performance. In the first case, it was Janet McTeer in A Doll’s House. In the second, it was Billie Piper in Yerma.
Intrigued by the raves, I saw both. More on McTeer later; my focus here is Yerma and Piper, about whom Brantley’s review also asked, “’Just how far,’ you think, with equal measures apprehension and fascination, ‘is she willing to go?’ The answer: further than you dare imagine.”
I’m sure that review was responsible for the anticipatory buzz that filled the sold-out Park Avenue Armory the Saturday evening I attended. Clearly, a large faction of the audience found the production a revelation; a woman sitting two seats away openly wept during and after the curtain call (where Piper looked, to quote Brantley again, “stunned, brutalized”).
Yerma was revelatory for me, too—mostly not in a good way. Still, I will acknowledge the extraordinary theatricality of Simon Stone’s writing and directing, which is full of brilliant visual and sonic effects, superbly executed by his designers (Lizzie Clachan did scenery, James Farncombe did lights, Stefan Gregory did music and sound) and cast (in addition to Piper, they include Maureen Beattie, Brendan Cowell, John MacMillan, Charlotte Randle, and Thalissa Teixeira). And yes, Piper’s performance, a slow downward-spiraling into grief and madness, in particular is a virtuoso tour-de-force.
How depressing, then, to find all this talent in service of something so tawdry and toxic. If Brantley breathlessly wondered how far Piper was willing to go, the front-and-center question for me was why are we spending $100 to watch with rapt attention a group of awful people, whom we would immediately flee were we to meet them in the flesh? (Luckily, there’s little chance of that—Stone stages the entire show behind glass walls, as though the audience were staring at a terrarium.)
I should explain that Stone’s Yerma reworks a 1934 play by Garcia Lorca, who described his own piece as a “tragic poem.” Set in Spain, the title character is trapped in a loveless marriage, and unable to have a child (the title literally means “barren”). Her mounting desperation is the central action of the play, though there is much poetic imagery about the land (which is fecund, as Yerma is not), Catholicism, and more.
Stone’s very loose adaptation retains the central theme—a childless woman’s growing obsession with pregnancy—but translates it to a contemporary, affluent British world of flashy internet businesses and casual romantic hook-ups.
Seen here, Yerma—called “Her”—is what in British parlance used to be known as a “Bird,” a pretty but shallow, self-absorbed blonde who publishes a blog devoted to her life. Her male partner, John (Brendan Cowell), is a loutish drunk, who minutes into the first scene refers to her as “Sugarnipples,” and makes dismissive jokes about gays and lesbians. (You can see why this is a gene pool worth preserving at all costs.)
Critically, at no point did Her’s desire for a child feel rooted in anything larger than herself. Initially, at least, she seems to hanker after a baby as she might want an iPhone X—other successful people have one, so she should, too.
Brantley recognizes the vast differences between Stone and Lorca (he even gives a brief description of the original), but he’s oblivious to the central problem. Lorca’s heroine, who is hopelessly trapped in a restricted world with few options, is inherently sympathetic. “Her” is merely self-centered—though there seems no limit to what she’ll do to have a baby, we have very little sense of why, or even if she genuinely wants the life that it will bring. A “poetic tragedy” has morphed into a melodrama, casting the audience as hungry voyeurs (that terrarium again).
I believe Brantley failed to notice this not because he’s obtuse (he isn’t), but rather because he was absorbed with something that has long been an idée fixe—emotionally overwrought actresses. Back for a moment to Janet McTeer in Doll’s House, a performance that was undeniably a triumph of stellar technique. What else could explain her ability to weep seemingly uncontrollably night after night? If McTeer’s Nora wasn’t the greatest performance I’d ever seen, it was certainly the wettest.
But it’s wrong for the role and the play. Nora’s arc is to understand she has only herself to depend on, and to find her inner strength and her dignity. Blubbering is that last thing she should do.
As for Piper’s “Her,” I don’t know what the last thing she should do is, and I don’t care. What I wanted fervently was to get away from her. Piper is a powerhouse actress, no doubt about it. Doesn’t she also deserve a platform that gives her some dignity?
And the bigger question, one that was very much on mind as I left the Park Avenue Armory—why can’t our leading male critics stop fetishizing female angst as the highest form of acting?
Yerma closes on April 21, and is currently sold-out. For more information on availability, visit the Park Avenue Armory website.