For what Ms. Piper achieves is an anatomy of an obsession that, layer by layer, peels off one woman’s skin until every nerve ending is mercilessly exposed. And while Lizzie Clachan’s ingenious, two-sided transparent box of a set presents this act of vivisection under glass, as if on a specimen slide, be warned that you will find it impossible to maintain a clinical distance.
Ms. Piper’s daring, it should be noted, is matched by that of Mr. Stone, a young Australian director who has already made a name for himself as an unorthodox interpreter of classics. On the surface, “Yerma” would seem to be an unpromising candidate for a 21st-century conversion.
Set in an isolated village in Southern Spain, Lorca’s tragedy tells the baleful, simple story of a farmer’s wife who prays, insistently and in vain, to be a mother. (Her name, Yerma, is a play on the Spanish verb for “to lay waste.”) It unfolds, in darkly lyrical language, like a medieval fairy tale.
Mr. Stone saw something ageless in Yerma’s visceral desire to conceive and her attendant, abject sense of failure. “The biological dramas will always be the same,” he said in an interview with The Financial Times. “We are still just animals. It’s more of a shock to discover that now.”
Rather than setting his version in a small agrarian community — where people remain close to nature’s rhythms and everybody knows everybody else’s business — Mr. Stone took a contrarian approach. This “Yerma” takes place in a London of a willfully progressive, deracinated middle class, which long ago discarded traditional notions of family.
Ms. Piper’s Her is an assertive, feminist editor of a national newspaper, who has just bought a house in a gentrifying outer London neighborhood with her longtime partner, John (a superb Brendan Cowell). They seem to be of one sensibility, with their playful, raunchy sex talk and smug, pleasure-seeking narcissism.
When Her, who is in her early 30s, casually suggests it might be time to start thinking family, John agrees. He even stomps on her sheet of birth control pills in a ritual affirmation; they don’t crush easily, though, on the deep carpet of their new digs. (Mr. Stone has some cunning variations on folkloric portents.)
And so the long wait begins. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that they are waiting in vain, though there is one idyllic scene that briefly and cruelly suggests otherwise. Her’s natural vivacity edges into fever and frenzy, as she spends time with her frustratingly fertile sister, Mary (Charlotte Randle) and their abstracted, academic mother (Maureen Beattie).
Also in her immediate orbit are Des (Thalissa Teixeira), the trendy young woman who is her assistant, and Her’s former boyfriend, Victor (John MacMillan), who winds up working at the same paper. It’s only a small circle of acquaintances she moves among, yet her plight is known, it seems at times, to the whole wide world.
That’s because Her writes a blog, with ever more candor and unblushing detail, about her experiences. You might think that, unlike Lorca’s insular rustic community, latter-day London is a place to be anonymous, should once choose.
But Mr. Stone makes it clear that, because of social media, the world today is just one big, gossipy village. And the wagging, censorious tongues of Lorca’s townsfolk are replaced by the all-too appropriately named trolls who lie in wait in dark corners of the internet.
Not that you’ll be consciously drawing such parallels. What hooks and holds you is the magnetic emotional pull of the performances, and I mean all of them, as each character tries to wrestle with and backs off from the ferocity of the unraveling Her.
Ms. Piper realizes the rare and inspired paradox of an artfully controlled portrait of someone losing every last vestige of self-control. Even at her character’s most tormented, Ms. Piper is never merely flailing.
Each increasingly wild gesture and utterance are of a consummate piece with the seemingly contented, exuberant woman we meet at the play’s beginning. Ms. Piper sustains a dangerous, seesawing tension between the familiar, wryly civilized surface and the primal agony that swallows selfhood.
It is a bleak and hellish destination to which she leads us. And throughout it has been subliminally underscored by Ms. Clachan’s claustrophobic corridor of a set (the audience sits on either side) and Stefan Gregory’s choral music.
When Ms. Piper took her curtain calls on Tuesday night, she had the stunned, brutalized look of someone who had been through war and wasn’t yet sure if she’d won. The audience, at first, seemed equally dazed. It took a few moments for everyone to realize that this study of nihilistic defeat was indeed an unconditional victory.
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