Yerma and the Tyranny of Choice
This Saturday, after spending the afternoon with my partner in IKEA buying items for the flat we have just bought, I went to the theatre with an old friend. We saw Yerma at the Young Vic, adapted from Lorca’s 1934 original by 31-year-old Australian director Simon Stone.
In both versions, Yerma, which translates as barren, is a play about infertility. Each is also a comment on its time. Stone’s adaptation begins raucously with the heroine, Yerma, and her partner John lying on the floor of the house that they have just bought, drinking champagne from plastic cups, a discarded pizza box on the floor beside them. They are celebrating having bought their first home together whilst also commenting wryly on their own social status.
In their giggly, elated colloquy, John talks about his theory that lesbians are the harbingers of gentrification, they joke about how they are drinking Veuve Clicquot rather than Dom Perignon, implying that they are working their way up to ‘Dom’, as they call it faux-familiarly, and conversation turns to their sex life. The scene sets up many of the tensions and themes that run throughout the play: there is an ambivalence at the heart of their relationship, exemplified by their dehydrating passion and expressed through humour. Although they are somewhat itchy about being the north London comfortably-off middle-class left-wing 40-is-the-new-25 types they want to make fun of, they can’t help but get excited about the tasteful furniture they will display in their new home or their edgy new neighbourhood. This is a couple who are used to having a life shaped by choice and desire rather than need or desperation. It is perhaps all the more fitting, then, that Yerma is played by Billie Piper, who launched herself on the public consciousness as the 15-year-old singer of ‘Because We Want To’ in 1998.
The couple also each embody the contradictory gender expectations of their time and social class. In this first scene, we learn that Yerma doesn’t shave her armpits (by implication, because she is a feminist), but does remove her pubic hair (by her own admission, because John prefers it). John, who is about seven years older, is a recognisable character for anyone who’s visited the brunch spots of Crouch End, Whitstable or Brighton, with his chinos and brogues, proto-1940s hairstyle and reluctance to admit to any emotional vulnerability.
On this first night in their new home, Yerma tells John that she’d like to have a baby. She doesn’t say why and he doesn’t ask and it feels a little like the idea has just popped into her head, or even that it’s a compulsion, the inevitable next thing to do now they’ve bought a house together (as she says, there is a lot of room for two people in a three-storey house). After some initial hesitation, or perhaps just surprise, John agrees and even pulls her contraceptive pill packet out of her handbag and stamps on it, which, as he notes, is a more symbolic than effective gesture given the soft carpet underneath.
This is an adaptation of Lorca’s play with many elements of the story retained, almost in archetypal form, but it is, as the attention to style suggests, bang up to date. There are references to iPhones, gentrification and avocado on toast. There is a high ‘fuck’-count in the script. John is establishing his own business after having been made redundant and Yerma is a journalist and blogger. A recurring theme is the way that technology shapes different generations – from Yerma’s acerbic and unmaternal mother extolling the virtues of Deliveroo, to her 21-year-old assistant advising her on how to build her brand (i.e. herself) through her blog.
Yerma’s quest to become pregnant does not happen as expected – she can’t just throw away her pills and conceive. The play continues over the following five years, charting her increasing desperation and emotional fragility until a moment of violence – or possibly two – brings her journey to an end. Along the way, she has 12 rounds of IVF, leaving them in debt by £60,000. It would of course be highly unrealistic for a couple like this living in the time and place they do not to try IVF. It is also highly realistic that IVF would not work for them, since despite continued development, success rates are still relatively low – for Yerma, in her mid-30s, they would have been around 30%. But, this is not a play about IVF, it may not even be about infertility so much as a play about childlessness, and in this it is true to its original. Yerma is suffering from the grief of not having a longed-for child – her sadness is an ancient, visceral one. IVF is, in this narrative, simply another available technology – something to try rather than the answer to the problem.
Yerma has a striking and effective staging, with the action taking place within a rectangular glass box in the middle of the theatre with the audience seated on two sides. The box is highly reminiscent of a fish tank, though the effect is also not unlike a dolls’ house. Reviewers have compared it to a goldfish bowl or a glass exhibition case, reflecting the main characters’ aspirational lifestyle. The glass box, and the fact that the actors are wired up with microphones so the audience can hear them on speakers on the other side of the box, also fits with the isolation and exposure that is common both to the experience of infertility and the highly screen-mediated lives than many people live in the 21stcentury.
What the reviews that I have read don’t pick up on is the crucial relationship of glass to infertility and IVF. Glass is an essential material in laboratories, for equipment like pipettes, microscopic lenses, collecting chambers and tanks in which experimental animals like mice and frogs are kept. But glass is also quite specific to IVF. In vitro literally means in glass. The defining equipment of IVF, the Petri dish in which egg and sperm are mixed, is typically glass (they can also be plastic, but are still modelled on the qualities of glass). Laparoscopy, which relies on glass lenses, is no longer used for egg retrieval but it was vital in the early days of IVF. And of course, exposing infertility or IVF to public attention is nothing new either – the news media have been interested in the technology right from the start and in fact the pioneering research of Steptoe and Edwards was part-funded by an American TV executive.
The glass box does not exist on its own in the play – equally important to the staging is the use of light, darkness and sound to create a sense of timing and to swing the audience, like Yerma, between disorientation and lucidity. The story is told episodically, much as Yerma might have told it herself in hindsight. Each scene opens with sudden bright lights on the action, the characters often mid-sentence or mid-conversation. The scenes are relatively short and show a significant conversation or event, before ending just as suddenly in darkness, accompanied by music – at first Greek chorus-style intonations and later discordant jangling guitar, as the scenery is changed impressively fast under cover of darkness. Underlining the importance of the glass in contemporary technologies once again, screens above the stage add Brechtian captions that mark the passing of time and headlines of what is about to happen – sometimes just in one word, ‘hope’, sometimes in a pithy sentence, ‘an ex reappears’. As the narrative progresses and Yerma’s state of mind disintegrates, the captions read in the darkness seem to hold more promise of clarity than the action that happens in the light.
The episodic nature of the telling reflects another major theme of the play, the sense of how did we get here? that John gives forceful expression to in his final scene. In her new book, journalist Miranda Sawyer discusses what it means to be middle-aged, especially when you are someone who always thought you’d be different from the average. As she writes in The Guardian, ‘These are the facts. I am in my 40s. I have a job. I am married. We have children and a flat with no garden, and a mortgage and a fridge-freezer and a navy blue estate car. None of this is a surprise. Is it?’ Sawyer reflects eloquently on the dawning recognition that one has become, at least on paper, a cliché, and how important generational differences are in this. A cynic might add that having children, whilst utterly conventional, can be a way of escaping the expected path, because they can take on their parents’ dreams for a different future.
As John opines in his last conversation with his wife, they have become the bourgeois nightmare they were always going to resist. On the surface, Simon Stone’s adaptation seems wildly different from Lorca’s original because it is not about the strictures of social (and specifically Catholic) convention and what they can do to an infertile woman. And yet, as John’s speech makes clear, the idea that he and Yerma are immune to social expectations is a fantasy.
In his adaptation, Stone deploys a number of clichés that add to both the humour and the pathos of the play – John is always travelling for work and this is associated with the threat of infidelity. Like a stock sitcom character, he even misses Yerma’s birthday because of one such business trip. Yerma is successful in her career, but she also writes a lifestyle blog, cares about interior design, dresses fashionably, does yoga and follows food fads, like a perfectly aspirational middle-class woman. While John is always leaving for and arriving from work trips, Yerma is almost always at home, receiving guests and, later, pining for her absent child.
Much of the social scientific literature on infertility and IVF has shown that people’s experiences are often similar to the point of cliché (and that this in itself adds to their heartache). Even when they live within very different social, legal and religious contexts, they talk of the rollercoaster of emotions, their submission to hormones, a sense of having to try, that adoption is just not the same as having a child of their own.[i] Women receiving IVF treatment express a sense that infertility has both shown them that they cannot have everything they want or plan for and that the inability to conceive ‘naturally’ makes them terribly (and often newly) aware of their reproductive biology and the expectations that both they and the people around them have for it.
Both the Financial Times and Telegraph reviewers of Yerma have said that, compared to Lorca’s original, the 21st century Yerma is less sympathetic because she has more agency and that this difficult character is redeemed by Billie Piper’s performance. Suzi Feay in the FT writes, ‘And there is a moment when you think – hang on, this is just about a self-centred middle-class woman undergoing IVF’. Pause for a moment on that ‘just’. Across different cultures, there is popular agreement that having children is the most important thing a person can do and yet, apparently, this is just a play about some woman having IVF.
Meanwhile, Ben Lawrence writes in The Telegraph, ‘It is easy to sympathise with the original Yerma, whose precise place in history means she is blighted by powerlessness in a macho society.’ But, he charmingly continues, with 21st century Yerma, ‘our patience is sorely tested. She is a needy, navel-gazing nightmare who swigs Veuve Clicquot and frets about fertility-friendly breakfasts. You can see why partner John (played by acclaimed Australian actor Brendan Cowell) may be reluctant to procreate.’
I agree that Billie Piper is excellent in the role and deserves the huge acclaim she has received for it. But I think these reviewers are also missing the point. Yerma and John are both unlikeable because they are, despite what they would expect and like, subject to social expectations after all. They are just subtler expectations than Lorca’s Yerma experienced. The technology of the 21st century which is on display in Stone’s adaptation is only the most visible way in which he has made it contemporary – the changing social mores, and especially their individualisation, is just as much a part of this story’s context. Every decision that Yerma or John makes is interpreted as a choice and every life event they experience can also be seen as a lifestyle choice. These characters are intelligent and aware enough to recognise the ironies of the consumerist, individualist, late capitalist world in which they live and gradually they realise how difficult it is to resist its expectations. Billie Piper’s Yerma may not be gossiped about by washerwomen because she is ‘barren’, nor may she experience pressure from her family to conceive, but she is confronted with the hard truth of her inability to control her biology – and with the realisation that perhaps her life is not that different from anyone else’s.
Simon Stone has said, ‘there are Yermas walking around in cities everywhere. London, Sydney, Berlin. I know these Yermas. That moment for women – family, friends, colleagues – where they say: “I’ve spent my entire life making sure I’m not defined by my choices, by my gender, or by cliched expectations of what I want to do with my life.” Then suddenly biological questions start knocking.’
Infertility is the perfect topic for such a contemporary play, not only because IVF is a defining technology of our time, but also because it is an experience that shows us the limit of human control and agency and the intense powerlessness that realising that can induce.