Vital is one word for Simon Stone’s production of Yerma at the Young Vic. Important is another. I can’t say that I enjoyed it. I didn’t. Some people loved it. They want to see it again. Right now if possible. Some post selfies after the show with Billie Piper in the title role. I’m not sure these people can have been at the same show as me. What I saw was terrifying.
Many readings come to mind. I could do the art critical thing of arranging elements into a performative text that permits multiple interpretations. I spent a long time learning how to do that. But here it feels like cheating. The standard approach would be to talk about how the performance addresses the ‘issue’ of fertility and IVF, and the desperation channeled into rituals of scheduling that economize feelings and harvest cash: ‘They said we could have both [a career and children]. They lied. They fucking lied.’ Then there’s the gushy approach, of how it left me a saner, more rational being. All these things are possible, and on some level true. There is another possibility — a doomy one. This I leave to someone braver or more pessimistic.
Simon Stone’s production is not Lorca’s Yerma. If you look for it, you’ll be confused. This is Yerma now: Yerma in a perspex box that looks like a mirror, but which turns out to be transparent: ‘I’m such a fucking narcissist,’ she says. ‘Narcissism! Great! That’s the zeitgeist!’ her assistant replies. She is described sometimes as a blogger, sometimes a newspaper editor, as if the two have become indistinguishable – journalism as little more than a bottomless excavation of self. But her experience, of a female body in a culture that privileges symbolic status and material acquisition over life itself, does say something about the world: of the tyranny of some drives over others, and of the revolt of the latter.
Yerma is the zeitgeist. And the zeitgeist is narcissistic. She is 33, and thinks she wants to have a child. She thinks she might regret it if she didn’t. Her husband is the kind of man DH Lawrence would tear holes into – a meek, indifferent lout. Together, they have bought a house. They drink champagne — the more expensive the better — and eat pizza out of the box. They congratulate themselves on trendy lives and radical credentials, discussing gentrification (lesbians are always the first to arrive) from the thick cream carpet of their three-floored loft. Leftish politics is another stylish accessory. They’re successful. Chilled out. Too fucking special to become like all the rest. Except, of course, that they already are.
Inevitably, it all comes crashing down. Love oriented around sustaining an illusion of comfort is dissolved in joblessness, credit card debt, and the loss of property — perhaps the only thing that held the couple together. The IVF treatments have all failed. In Lorca’s Yerma, her ex-lover Victor signals at least the possibility, not just of conception, but of vitality returning to a society that has gone to seed. In Stone’s, he’s just another man who cannot heed the call of the vital in her. The voice of the child Yerma doesn’t have, calling to her out of her delirium, is the cry of a generative principle struggling to be born into a blasted culture. Of tenderness and warmth — of life itself — screaming for release.
Waves of feminism that liberated traits in women traditionally conceived as masculine — reason, competition, self-reliance — have been slow to liberate the raw, earthy and bloody feminine: I suspect because it’s this that most terrifies a world order overbalanced by a masculinity that prefers to smear itself its own excesses than countenance equilibrium. The experience and possibility of bearing children is still taboo, as is the urge that drives it. So are care, nurture, and maintenance in general. This is the social work least valued, taken for granted, and often done for free. In a bizarre logic of cultural justification, it’s often seen as self-indulgent in a woman to desire children, and its own reward to care for young and old in a society that runs on cash.
When Yerma sinks a kitchen knife into her empty belly, something is destroyed. I want to believe that thing is the lives these people chose — or rather, the way of life expressed through them. ‘You’re destroying your life,’ Yerma’s husband tells her, as she is devoured by the desire for life to grow inside her. ‘Maybe my life is destroying me,’ she says. It is a way of life that is destroying us all, which threatens the matrix in which we all live – and on which nature is wreaking its revenge.
By chance, I saw Yerma with another woman my age. We don’t know each other well, but there’s a certain sympathy. In the last scenes, I had the urge to embrace her. This is not how I grew up in Britain. Affection is something I learned from other cultures. But it’s still not something I do with other women. Men, yes. Embracing women is something I’ve had to learn. I will try to do it more often.