Yerma @ Arcola Theatre, London

cast list
Kathryn Hunter
Antonio Gil Martinez
Shobu Kapoor
Vincenzo Nicoli
Joy Elias Rilwan
Maya Sondhi
Paula O’Donohue

directed by
Helena Kaut-Howson
The Edinburgh Festival in August usually coincides with a lull in interesting new productions in the capital. The only big West End opening of the last couple of weeks was that of the workmanlike touring production of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers – which set up shop in the Theatre Royal Haymarket to distinctly mediocre reviews. There are some London venues that buck this trend however, producing quality work throughout the summer. The Arcola theatre in East London – now midway through its ambitious Viva Lorca Festival – is one of these.

Helena Kaut-Howson’s production of Yerma, part of Lorca’s rural trilogy here in a new version by Frank McGuinness, is the second of three shows by the Spanish playwright to be staged by the theatre, along with a selection of readings and poetry. It’s a darkly lyrical drama, an allegory about a childless woman in a society where women were defined purely as wives and mothers.

This sounds incredibly bleak and at times, especially in the inevitably tragic conclusion it is, but Kaut-Howson’s thrilling and atmospheric production contains so much to excite and engage that the title character’s anguish occasionally gets lost along the way.

The basic but flexible Arcola space had been divided down the middle, the audience facing each across the divide. On this central stage Kaut-Howson draws the poetry and beauty from Lorca’s text, foregoing naturalism for an intriguing combination of African-influenced choreography and percussion driven set-pieces. The most memorable of these features a group of washerwomen who discuss a woman’s place in the world as they slap their sodden laundry against the floor, sending great arcs of water flying through the air (and often into the audience). As the backing music increases in urgency they work faster, their rhythm matching that of the music. It was a fantastic scene that will linger long in the memory.

Kathryn Hunter plays the eponymous Yerma, a woman tormented by her seeming inability to bear a child. Her performance was very physical – husky and hunched, she scuttled about the stage. Though perhaps too old for the role, this mattered little – she radiated desperation as her attempts to find a way out of her predicament only compounded her situation. Slight of stature, she seemed to get swept away by the power of her desire as she clashed with her husband (a taciturn Antonio Gil Martinez) and sought help wherever she could find it. While some the supporting cast played things a little too broadly, Joy Elias Rilwan was also excellent as the pagan woman with the infectious laugh who sympathises – to a point – with the barren Yerma and tries to give her advice.

The production concludes with another atmospheric blend of music and movement, with the final pilgrimage taken over by masked dancers. Though visually striking, these admittedly hypnotic scenes at times threatened to distract from Lorca’s intended overtones, trampling over certain dramatic subtleties – but this is a small complaint in an accessible and frequently joyful production that revels in the possibilities of live theatre.

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