Wednesday 16 November 2011

Humid, but never heated

Yerma, Gate Theatre, London

Anthony Weigh has distilled Federico García Lorca’s ‘tragic poem’ into a litany of the life-cycle. It hammers away, insistent as unquenched thirst, with images of food and drink, piss and shit, flesh and blood in contrast to as landscape as barren as its protagonist. Here, Yerma’s desire for a child is shown to be as natural and burning a human urge as any other. It is not simply a want, but a fundamental need and, when it goes unfulfilled, the effect – like starvation or suffocation – is dehumanising.

If Weigh captures the ideas behind Yerma’s position, he is less successful in conveying the feeling. Though he radically reduces the play to a skeletal form without losing the narrative’s robustness, Weigh gains no extra emotional potency. His Yerma is always a degree above body-temperature, never a furnace, which makes her eventual act of murder more one of exasperation or exhaustion than of passion. It’s humid, but never heated and, while that reflects the stretch of her slow torture, it also lets the pressure out of the drama.

Ruth Sutcliffe’s design, a parched desert of scab-coloured sand and rusted corrugated iron, serves the text just as well as Natalie Abrahami’s blunt direction. By playing it with a deliberate awkwardness, unfussy about tonal range, Abrahami scuffs the sheen and poetry that could be found in Weigh’s writing and offers instead an intonation. It knocks quietly but relentlessly, like the soft repeated blows of a hammer on a chisel.

Yerma herself, played pallid, brittle and simultaneously rooted by Ty Glaser, is a naïf waif, whose husband Juan (Hasan Dixon) builds a rampart between them. Her every kindness is deflected by a man grown gnarled. Like Jack Spratt, Dixon is all gristle and Weigh suggests his cold unwillingness is rooted both in ambition and repressed homosexuality.

Those around them are thick-set, earthy stock. Ross Anderson’s wholesome butcher, the object of Yerma’s fancies, and Alison O’Donnell’s crude Maria (they’re always called Maria, aren’t they?) set up strong contrasts with the malnourished central couple, while Sharon Duncan-Brewster’s Dolores, a witchdoctor, also has a smooth sexuality that further isolates them.

If Weigh’s coolly meditative adaptation neatly entwines intelligent literary-critical interpretation with narrative sense, it perhaps lacks the heart of any real drama. Nevertheless, it’s so well executed that its own rhythms and reasons take over, and the result is an absorbing and pointed theatrical exploration.

Till 17 December


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