Federico Garcia Lorca’s Yerma, first performed in 1934, is a deeply strange and dark play, full of rural ghosts, poetry and ritual. It’s the final part, as the Cervantes team remind us, of his “Rural Trilogy” which also encompasses Blood Wedding and The House of Bernarda Alba. Like them, Yerma is set in the dry, poetically rich, and brutal countryside of Spain, where the broiling conflicts between the modern age and the ancient codes of religious morality would soon be played out in the Spanish Civil War, engulfing the entire country and ending Lorca’s short life in the process.
The recently-opened Cervantes Theatre in Waterloo features two separate casts performing Lorca’s tragedy, with English and Spanish versions on different nights. Needless to say, I attended the English version. This is a mixed blessing, for while Lorca is surely a universal writer, it often seems to me that he works best when translators take risks and liberties with him, similar to the flights of imagination he took with the Spanish language. The musicality particular to his Spanish is essentially untranslatable, and an adaptation/production which takes risks is always likely to get more blood out of Lorca than one which attempts to Anglicise him. For a play and a writer still so pulse-quickening today, there is a little too much traditionalism and too little daring running through the production at The Cervantes.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t moments when both the power and the stillness of the play are brought across – the moment which encapsulates both completely and beautifully is the very final motion Leila Damilola makes, as Yerma, before the final curtain. It’s a beautifully concise and moving piece of direction, the plot significance of which I can’t spoil. Suffice to say that within the space of a few seconds and one simple act, reams of themes and meaning are captured.
There are moments when adaptor/director Jorge de Juan manages to seize the potential of the very intimate space of the Cervantes and brings the audience uncomfortably close to Lorca’s slanted portraits of mysteriously damaged people. Damilola is a Yerma full of fortitude; she communicates the side of the character which has a will to survive and escape her terrible predicament, in order that she may be “fruitful” and so become the useful, “real woman” she has been raised to become.
The cast mostly carry the piece well, although the ‘straightness’ of most of the production seems to run through the performances and keep them from taking us into the darker and deeper psychology that Lorca allowed his superstitious peasants. For every good piece of loaded direction, there is also too much aimless wandering which doesn’t exploit the space enough and leaves us feeling a little flat. Ángel Haro’s set design is a different matter, consisting of an expressionist piece of bamboo and sheeting winding up across the whole of the rear stage wall and casting increasingly strong shadows against the characters as Nigel A Lewis’ lighting design shifts around evocatively.
These technical achievements capture something of the non-literal, slant approach which it seems to me Lorca demands, given that he is the most improbably poetic and un-pin-downable of great dramatists. I wish this production had invested more in matching Lorca for poetic risk-taking, but I’m always grateful to see Lorca in a language I speak properly, and for me it’s hard not to fall for him and his beautiful, dissonant worlds, over and over again.
Yerma is playing at Cervantes Theatre in English until December 1 and in Spanish until December 8. For more information and tickets, click here.