“Does his breath make you want to feel his tongue in your mouth”
Outgoing Artistic Directors Natalie Abrahami and Carrie Cracknell have made the Gate Theatre into quite the powerhouse of small-scale international drama and Abrahami has turned her hand one last time with this production of Federico García Lorca’s Yerma, a co-production with Hull Truck, in a new version by Anthony Weigh. Having never seen it before, I couldn’t tell you anything about how it compares to the original (indeed I often wonder how many reviewers have real experience that they refer to rather than meticulous research) so I’m not even going to try.
The play centres on Yerma, a young peasant wife who is increasingly distraught at her childlessness in a community where fecundity is everything. Her sheep farmer husband Juan is more interested in tending his flock than tending to her needs and as she resorts to increasingly desperate measures to get a baby, she edges closer to the dark secret that haunts her marriage. In the ochre-heavy set of harsh sand and rusted corrugated iron – beautifully realised by Ruth Sutcliffe – the intensity is wound further and further until the spring breaks.
Ty Glaser makes Yerma a really rather naive young woman, unable to comprehend why life is being so unfair to her. At first this is endearing, her inexperience alongside her youthful husband’s on their wedding night is sweetly played. But as the seasons pass without her falling pregnant and Juan spending more and more time with his sheep, it is clear something is wrong. This is highlighted by her friend and neighbour, Alison O’Donnell in hilarious form, who is constantly dropping sprogs but who cannot help but hear the whispers in society that Yerma is somehow cursed. And she’s not helped by the recurring vision of a child, haunting her every move.
Hasan Dixon’s dour Juan is the model of taciturn repression, and bold hints as to why this may be are revealed when he is confronted by boyhood friend Victor, now the local butcher, towards the end of the play as the homoerotic tension in the air crackles with talk of “swimming” and “diving” together. Ross Anderson – no stranger to a gym and making me wonder if I oughtn’t have a “best use of biceps in a production” category for my end of year awards – exudes the kind of masculinity that would make one happily swim and dive with him, and probably towel him dry, and does it all with great suggestiveness.
If the production had a weakness, it was in the lack of social context in which it operated. The sense of shame felt by Yerma sometimes veered a little close to self-indulgence without the pressing reminder that this is what the community expected of her and there was little overt evidence of that, a consequence of the small cast perhaps. But it was intriguing, and evocative, and strangely moving: and in Weigh’s brusquely powerful words, ultimately darkly poetic. Abrahami, and Cracknell, leave the bar set extremely high for the incoming Christopher Haydon.