Even when the actors are wringing their guts out on stage, my usual approach is to keep a stiff upper lip and maintain my critical distance. Occasionally that's not possible, and I have to confess that Billie Piper's phenomenal performance last night at the Young Vic left me emotionally drained.
Australian director/writer Simon Stone has taken the central idea behind Federico Garcia Lorca's 1934 play about a childless woman and created a bold modern adaptation set in London in the present. I'm not going to lament the loss of the original and its Spanish context, because I have never seen Yerma before or read it. To describe the result as a star vehicle for Piper would be completely unfair both to Stone and the rest of the cast and design team; this production features much more than just a stunning central performance.
Like Denise Gough as a recovering drug addict in People Places and Things, Piper is mesmerising in the role of a woman whose failure to conceive a child sends her life into a slow death spiral. Her transformation from a bubbly lifestyle journalist into a suicidal piece of human wreckage is undoubtedly one of the performances of the year, and should put her on track for a shelf full of awards. As with all great stage performances, it becomes hard to imagine any other actor taking on the role.
But Stone's adaptation creates not just one vivid and rewarding role but six. Brendan Cowell is excellent as Piper's husband John, while Maureen Beattie, Charlotte Randall, John MacMillan and Thalissa Teixeira play her mother, sister, ex-lover and a young work colleague. These are all fully fledged characters who have their own problems to deal with. In dramatic terms, the richness of the characterisation makes this play much more of an ensemble piece than Duncan Macmillan's People Places and Things, in which minor characters are less fully developed. The dialogue is full of rich subtext. 'There is no problem,' husband John says emphatically. But we know that there is.
Lorca's play highlights the plight of a woman unable to fulfil her essential role of bearing children in a traditional peasant society. Stone's version boldly turns this upside down; as a lifestyle blogger and journalist, Piper uses her infertility as subject matter for her confessional writing. But as many confessional columnists have discovered, there is a price to be paid for spilling the beans on one's intimate secrets. Nothing destroys relationships more successfully.
Lizzie Clachan's traverse set encloses the actors behind glass walls and their voices are amplified. For the first couple of minutes I found the altered sound hard to follow, but I very quickly adjusted. I'm generally a fan of breaking down barriers between the actors and the audience, but this stage design with its transparent panels works brilliantly. The glass wall seems to create a paradoxical intimacy. This is a stage set that doesn't imprison the actors but rather seems to set them free.
There's a further interface with the audience as each scene is flagged up in advance on monitor screens that give not only the time interval but also warn of dangers to come, rather like road signs on the way to an inevitable slow-motion car crash. Functionally, these signposts do the same work as the chorus in a Greek tragedy.
In the programme Stone acknowledges the 1930s Spanish context but says Yerma is 'a play about a woman who exists everywhere in the world all the time, in the same way as Medea or Antigone'. His adaptation is highly topical, with its references to Brexit and Donald Trump, and its setting among superficial folk obsessed by social media. There's a paradox here of which I am sure Stone is fully aware; by bringing Lorca bang up to date in this way, he ensures that his own text will seem rather dated ten years from now. No doubt Yerma can be reinvented again for the 2020s, but whoever tackles it next will find it hard to deliver a production as good as this one.