Yerma, a CurtainUp London review CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp London London Review

Free me from the torment/Of seeing myself without fruit
---- Song of the Barren Orange Tree
Kathryn Hunter as Yerma
(Photo: Alessandro Evangelista)
The latest offering in the Arcola Theatre's ambitious two-month celebration of the plays, poetry and art of Federico Garcia Lorca is Yerma. The second in his great trilogy of Andalucian tragedies (following Blood Wedding and preceding The House of Bernarda Alba), the play centres on the increasingly desperate plight of the title character whose unfulfilled yearning to have a child leads to violent consequences.

Lorca's plays have been notoriously difficult to stage successfully in Britain, as their distinctive blend of poetry and passion, symbolism and earthiness, isn't naturally compatible with traditional Anglo-Saxon culture. Interestingly Helena Kaut-Howson directed Yerma three years ago in Manchester in a version by Pam Gems which she admits to finding too prosaic. This new version by Frank McGuinness has the right mix of lyrical toughness but Kaut-Howson's production still only partly captures Lorca's elusive spirit.

We see Yerma (Kathryn Hunter) gradually lose touch with reality as she fails to come to terms with a passionless marriage which after nine years has produced no children. Her husband Juan (Antonio Gil Martinez), a hard-working peasant farmer, devotes all his energies to tending his animals and crops, and has little time left over for a loving relationship as he just wants her to keep a well-ordered home, which they share with his two unmarried, sentinel-like sisters.

As Yerma alternates between fantasies of motherhood and bitter recognition of her "barrenness", she turns to superstitious pagan rituals and "ecstatic" Catholic pilgrimages in a despairing bid to become pregnant. Meanwhile the village gossips about her strange behaviour and possible infidelity with the local shepherd Victor (Vincenzo Nicoli), for whom she has strong feelings. While the fruitful land around her flourishes and other women bear children with ease, she alone it seems is doomed to remain sterile, until eventually she cracks under the strain.

Lilja Blumenfeld's traverse design, with a circle of pebbles suggesting alternatively a rock pool or a shrine, is well suited to the dramatic ritualistic set-pieces but fails to suggest the oppressive claustrophobia of Yerma's predicament. Tayo Akinbode's African-style rhythms and Gerry Jenkinson's effective lighting add plenty of atmosphere, especially during the scenes of the washerwomen's percussive beating of the laundry and the erotically charged fertility rites (choreographed by Sîan Williams).

However, the international cast don't give a convincing portrayal of an intense, close-knit community. Although Kathryn Hunter's reputation precedes her (especially her accomplished work with Théatre Complicité), her twitchy performance here seems over-expressive; also, it has to be said, she is too mature for the part of a woman longing for a child. This means that the dynamic with her husband (played by the much younger Spaniard Martinez, who impresses as the bemused Juan who feels his masculinity is being undermined) feels wrong.

The rather stolid Vincenzo Nicoli makes little impact as Yerma's lost love Victor, but Joy Elias Rilwan is a breath of fresh air as the life-affirming Pagan Woman, while Yvonne Wandera and Gary Carr make sparks fly as the Female and Male Masks who perform the sensual dance of procreation from which Yerma is excluded

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Written by Federico Garcia Lorca
Version by Frank McGuinness
Directed by Helena Kaut-Howson

Starring: Kathryn Hunter, Antonio Gil Martinez, Vincenzo Nicoli
With: Joy Elias Rilwan, Shobu Kapoor, Rachel Karafistan, Caroline Kilpatrick, Anna Lindup, Paula O'Donohue, Laura Richmond, Maya Sondhi, Yvonne Wandera, Gary Carr
Design: Lilja Blumenfeld
Lighting: Gerry Jenkinson
Music: Tayo Akinbode
Choreography: Sîan Williams
A KP Productions production
Running time: Two hours with one interval
Box Office: 020 7503 1646
Booking to 23 September 2006
Reviewed by Neil Dowden based on 29 August 2006 performance at the Arcola Theatre, 27 Arcola Street, London E8 2DJ (Rail: Highbury & Islington/Dalston Kingsland)
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