Stage Door Review
Thursday, February 16, 2023
by Simon Stone, directed by Diana Bentley
Coal Mine Theatre, 2076 Danforth Avenue,Toronto
February 9-28, 2023
Mary: “What have you been doing to your life?”
Her: “Or what has my life done to me?
Yerma by Australian playwright Simon Stone received a deluge of rave reviews when it had its world premiere in London, UK, in 2016, and another torrent of raves when it transferred to New York in 2018. The show marks a series of firsts for Coal Mine Theatre. It is the first production in its new, more spacious venue after its previous venue was damaged in a fire. It is the Canadian premiere production of Yerma, the first time Stone has licensed one of his adaptations to another director. The production is the Coal Mine directorial debut for co-founder Bentley, and it is the stage debut of Sarah Gadon, a Canadian actor who has been in films and on television steadily since 1998.
Theatre-lovers will know Yerma (written 1934) as a play by Federico García Lorca (1998-1936) and the third of what some call his “rural trilogy” beginning with The House of Bernarda Alba (written 1936) and continuing with Blood Wedding (written 1932). The project of all three plays is to show that the lives of lowly countryfolk are worthy subjects of poetic tragedy as much as the lives of monarchs were in the past.
Simon Stone has had a related notion in his many adaptations where he has taken a subject of a classic dramatic tragedy and rewritten it to set it plausibly in the present day. He has done this with Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening in 2008, Ibsen’s The Wild Duck in 2011, Euripides’ Medea in 2014 and most recently with Euripides’ Phaedra this year. Stone has so rewritten and altered the original works in his adaptions that Yerma, for instance, is listed as by Simon Stone rather than as by García Lorca, adapted by Simon Stone. What makes Stone’s adaptations remarkable is that despite his alterations and updating, the core of what made the classic work a tragedy still remains, thus showing that the 21st century has not outgrown dramatic tragedy as imagined by classic authors.
Yerma, both that of Stone and García Lorca, concerns a wife of over thirty who becomes so obsessed with having a child that she descends into madness. In both the husband of the main character – Yerma in García Lorca, Her in Stone – is a hard worker who is often absent and is cool to the idea of having a child. In both the main character is jealous of a young woman – her friend María in García Lorca, her sister Mary in Stone – who is unusually fecund despite a straying, alcoholic husband. Both feature a character named Victor with whom the main character once had a relationship. In García Lorca, Yerma imagines but dismisses the idea of an affair; in Stone, Her encourages an affair but Victor turns her down.
In García Lorca’s Yerma, the author leads us to believe that Yerma actually is barren. “Yerma” in Spanish is the feminine form of the adjective “yermo” meaning “barren”. This is also true in Stone but with heavy irony. Her had once been pregnant but had an abortion to carry on with her education. That pregnancy, however, which has led Her to believe she is fertile, turns out to have been a fluke. Given the present-day setting Her has herself tested and is found to have an extremely diminished ovarian reserve. Her husband John (Juan in García Lorca) is also tested and found to be normal.
The question in both plays is what it is that causes a woman’s desire to have a child to become an abnormal obsession. Here García Lorca and Stone have the greatest difference. In García Lorca, Yerma does not fell herself to be fully a woman without a child. Besides, Yerma sees that men have work to occupy their lives whereas a woman should have a child to occupy hers. A couple married two years without a child looks abnormal to the villages of rural Spain, represented in García Lorca by a Chorus of Washerwomen.
In Stone, the action is set modern London, which Bentley has in turn transferred to modern Toronto. When we first meet John and Her they have just bought a house in Leslieville. Stone has moved the couple upscale. John is a businessman who travels frequently and Her works for a magazine. Her also publishes a blog revealing the uncensored thoughts she has about her life and the people in it. She may not use their names but anyone who knows Her can figure out whom she’s writing about.
Her has an employee, Des, who informs her how the blog is doing. Des is basically Stone’s replacement for the Chorus of Washerwomen in García Lorca. If the women represent the views of the village towards Yerma, in Stone Des relates the views of Her’s readership, a global village thanks to the internet, about Her.
When Mary has a miscarriage and Her writes in her blog that she was actually glad that it happened, Des tells her that the hits on her blog are skyrocketing. In this twisted way Stone satirizes social media just as García Lorca satirized rural narrow-mindedness and its enforcement of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
While Stone has deleted numerous characters from the original, one important character he has added is Her’s Mother, Helen. Helen, an academic and feminist, tells Her that she could have killed herself when she learned she was pregnant with Her. Her notes that Helen never once held her when she was growing up, and in one of the few comic scenes, Helen seems not really to be able to do so even now. This scene demonstrates more than any other in Stone’s adaptation that what Her has never had and what she longs for is unconditional love.
The rave that greeted the premiere of Stone’s Yerma included words like “shattering”, “searing”, “harrowing”, “devastating” and so on. None of those terms suit the present production, not because it lacks energy or insight, but because Bentley seems to have taken a different view of how Her’s obsession would take its toll. Under Bentley, Sarah Gadon does not become “ferocious” or “feral”. Instead, Bentley envisions Her ramping up her power and then slowly imploding. Gadon takes us from the vital, lively Her we first meet to a woman who is only a shell of her former self by the end.
Gadon portrays a happy enough, likeable enough character at the very beginning, but we notice how Her’s reactions to certain events are not what we would expect. Her cannot conceal that she is not overjoyed when Mary tells her she is pregnant. Her struggles to conceal her pleasure at discovering Mary has miscarried. Gadon shows that Her is unaware that the more Her harps on about having a child with John, the more she pushes him away. Gadon also shows how Her does not realize how overtly flirtatious Her is with Victor, much to his confusion. Gadon gives us a picture of an idea that like a disease gradually takes over Her’s mind until only that one idea, hopeless of fulfilment, is left. Gadon’s depiction of Her’s decline is so well detailed and gradated that it suits Stone’s text perfectly.
Daren A. Herbert plays John as a character just as complex as Her. Rather than being eating up from inside by an obsession like Her, Herbert reveals John as a man forced to watch the disaster happening to his wife, powerless to do anything about it. He constantly tries to understand what is happening to Her, but Herbert makes it agonizingly clear how desperate and despondent John becomes once he recognizes that Her is beyond help. While Her is a character who becomes as much a stranger to us as to John, John is the character most closely in the same situation as the audience in trying to get some hold on events. Herbert makes John’s frequent changes of mood painfully believable.
Louise Lambert is a warm presence as Mary, one of only two characters who glows with light in the growing darkness of the play. Mary’s husband may be an alcoholic philanderer, but Lambert makes us believe in Mary’s hope that things will improve. The irony is that Mary’s seemingly far-fetched hope is stronger than any such hope Her can muster for herself.
The other naively happy character is Victor, who is authentically joyful upon seeing Her again and amazed at his luck that he should get a job working for her. Johnathan Sousa wonderfully conveys this unfettered sense of well-being, a feeling so unlike that of Her or John. Where Sousa excels is in showing us how Victor’s initial happiness is gradually chipped away by the seductive response he receives from Her and the antipathy he feels from John. Whatever words Victor may say, towards the end Sousa’s face alone, now clouded with apprehension, powerfully reveals the negative impact Her and John have had on Victor.
It is a pleasure to see Martha Burns on stage again. Her precision in delineating character is on full display as Her and Mary’s mother Helen. Burns makes Helen seem more polite and proper than either of her daughters, but the words she speaks about them are harsher than anything they say, especially when she says them in a kind, motherly tone. A moment that resonates throughout the action is Helen’s patent inability to hug Her authentically even when Her pleads for such attention. Burns makes Helen’s awkwardness both comic and horrifying at once. We can only think that with a mother like Helen it’s no wonder Her is mentally unstable.
Michelle Mohammed has a small role as Des, Her’s PA. It is in part a satire of millennials but the role also demonstrates how physically and mentally disconnected Her is from her followers. Mohammed provides a refreshing font of truth-telling in a play so full of suspicion and disquiet.
The play is set in the round with a bright white sunken rectangle two steps down from the floor as the main playing area. This design by Kaitlin Hickey looks a lot like an empty swimming pool. This would be a good metaphor for the emptiness of Her’s womb or the emptiness of life and spirit that Her comes to experience. The hard surfaces and sharp edges of the steps look dangerous, but in practice the actors seemed to have no difficulty with finding their places in the dark or bringing in awkward objects. In this way each time Hickey, also the lighting designer, brought up the lights what we saw was a surprise.
In adapting García Lorca, Stone has jettisoned all the poetry and symbolism for which the poet and playwright was so famous. It may be that Stone feels such language hardly suits the vulgar, prosaic world we now live in. Nevertheless, instead of poetry he fills his dialogue with significant pauses which often speak more loudly than any words the characters might say.
Stone can’t resist giving Her a speech near the end summarizing, in a rare moment of clarity, what she has learned. This speech in which Her longs to leave something behind her to continue after her death, helps explain the importance to her of both the blog and the baby. Stone makes explicit that Yerma is not merely about longing for a child but about the existential fear that the self will not survive in any form in the future. Realizing this aspect of Yerma is what gives Bentley’s direction of the play such a strong impact. The Coal Mine’s production is necessary viewing for all theatre-lovers.
Photos: Sarah Gadon as Her and Daren A. Herbert as John; Sarah Gadon as Her; Louise Lambert as Mary, Martha Burns as Helen and Sarah Gadon as Her. © 2023 Tim Leyes.
For tickets visit www.coalminetheatre.com.