CW: mental health, misogyny

The claustrophobic anxiety of Lorca’s Yerma, adapted and directed by Lola Murphy and Juliette Morison for Angel in the House Productions, is oppressive as soon as I sit down in the Burton Taylor Studio, nothing before me but a starkly decorated set. The 1934 Spanish play follows the childless agonies of its protagonist, Yerma (‘barren’ in Spanish) and her gradual detachment from reality.

Before it begins, Yerma lies alone in the centre of the intimate space, a matter of metres from the audience but intangible, ephemeral.  The set is sparse, but it needs to be in such a modest studio space. The ironic virginal purity of Yerma’s white nightgown, matched with the white drapes that hang from rafters in shadows upstage, refuses to let us forget the subject of the play. A credit to set designer Flora Faulk, every part of the set makes more keen our awareness of the themes yet to be explored, of fertility and the effects of its absence. Behind Yerma sits a wooden dresser decorated with an abundance of flowers, placed in macabre baby-head plant pots. Floral fecundity mocks the sleeping Yerma, and the kitsch yet sinister baby heads create the visual motif of the space being solely occupied, paradoxically, by this barren woman and her babies.

Throughout the play, these absent babies become characters themselves, their phantom presence eventually driving Yerma to madness. We are witness to Yerma’s slowly fracturing honour-marriage to her husband Juan, and the heightening of her maternal anxieties with every woman that bears a child. Her friend Maria, sensitively portrayed by Millie Tupper, admits that she dislikes showing Yerma her own baby, as ‘it always makes [her] weep.’ Ceidra Moon Murphy, who also plays Yerma, made a brilliant choice as costume designer to have the three women in anonymous, maiden-like white nightgowns, in contrast to the two men in oil-stained, khaki overalls. This makes manifest this impassable gulf between the male and the female in this play. Part of the grief of the unfolding plot is Yerma’s reluctance to resign herself to her husband’s insistence that, as a woman, she must stay at home. A modernisation on the part of the directors from an olive grove to a car factory makes Juan’s profession even more industrial and ‘masculine’; a car factory lacks the natural fertility of the olive grove, further distancing Yerma’s husband from the pro-creative urge that ultimately leaves her hollow.

As Yerma becomes more and more unhappy, and less and less likely to conceive, she whispers the venomous words: ‘I’m not empty… I’m slowly filling with hate.’ It is at this moment that the successful lighting and sound design by Dan Stedman comes into effect: like Blanche Dubois listening to the fatal Varsouviana, the shrill ring of the baby crying, heard only by Yerma, heightens our awareness of her mental state as it is slowly eroded. Stedman’s most striking use of lights and sound comes later in the play, as Yerma’s unravelling has begun in earnest. Depicted with deep red light and the relentless beat of dance music, we are presented a hellish nightmare-scape of sin and desire from which Yerma is not able to escape. This scene is a volta in the production. The remainder of the play is the completion of the tragedy a woman driven mad, muddied with the complicated, and modern, implications of gas-lighting and stricture within the oppressive bounds of her relationship and society.

Overall, I was surprised and impressed by Angel in the House Productions’ Yerma. The stripping down of the cast to five characters made each interaction yet more meaningful, and apart from a couple of uncomfortably long scene-changes, the cast was completely streamlined. The character of Yerma was excellently cast in Murphy, whose visceral, raw emotion could reach its zenith and drop to nothing in a matter of seconds. She proved a competent centre-piece for the play, leaving us simultaneously piteous of and baffled by the protagonist, up until her final act of sin.