A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Monday, 28 March 2011


Lorca in 1914

Theatre is poetry that rises from the book and becomes human enough to talk and shout, weep and despair. FEDERICO GARCÍA LORCA

I adore the theatre but hardly ever seem to go there these days. Which is why it was such a treat to see a staging of Lorca's Yerma in the West Yorkshire Playhouse the other evening. I'd seen the play before - at Manchester's  Royal Exchange in 2003 - and was impressed by its soaring lyricism and passionate intensity. This new production by Róisín McBrinn was equally engaging. McBrinn is an Irish director, born in Dublin, and the dialogue was spoken in Irish accents throughout. Surprising, you might think, for a play set in the heart of Spanish Andalusia. However, this transposition from rural Spain to rural Ireland did work well. Just consider the universal parallels between the two societies (particularly eighty years ago when Lorca was writing): Catholic repression, a traditional macho-male and subordinate-female hierarchy, rigid sexual mores, malicious village gossip. All these themes intermingle in this intense and poetic play.

The plot tells the story of Yerma, a childless woman desperate to have a child ('yerma' means 'barren' in Spanish). Yerma becomes increasingly alienated from her husband, Juan, who is more interested in tending his fields than responding to her psychic and sexual needs. She rejects the luke-warm advances of Victor, the love of her childhood, as she believes in keeping faith with her marriage. Finally, still childless, estranged from most of the gossiping and abundantly fertile women of the village, and descending deeper and deeper into mental turmoil, if not madness, she strangles her husband. Put prosaically like this, it sounds ridiculous. But, caught up as a member of the audience in the lyrical beauty and passion of this play, you are considerably moved by the emotional drama and Yerma's ever more plangent laments.

Kate Stanley-Brennan played a compelling Yerma - barefoot on an almost bare stage. Above the boards hung a large tilting disc, which stood for the sun and the moon in turn, and also seemed to symbolise a womb and a Catholic communion wafer and probably other things too. As well as the troubling, dominating forces of Catholic dogmatism, primitive superstition and male chauvinism (making of Yerma an existential outsider figure with nowhere to go), I also detected an even more sinister and prescient undertow to the play: for in 1936, only two years after Yerma was written, Franco's conservative Nationalists - supported by the Church - attacked the socialist Republican government. This was the start of the Spanish Civil War with its horrendous atrocities and executions - leading to the establishment of Franco's authoritarian regime in Spain which lasted well into the 1970s.

Lorca's other two rural tragedies, Blood Wedding and The House Of Bernarda Alba, are two more examples of his passionate and poetic art brought to the stage. Do see them if you ever have the opportunity.

Lorca was assassinated in 1936 at the outset of the Spanish Civil War. The circumstances of his death are shrouded in mystery: some think his murder had as much to do with homophobia as it had with politics. He was only thirty-eight years old.


Ruth said...

Your telling of this experience and play is poignant, Robert. I can feel the ache of the story. I have known Lorca as poet, but not as playwright.

I have long observed connections between Irish and Latino cultures, for the reasons you've stated. It began when I had two good friends I worked with in a restaurant who were married to each other: he was Mexican and she was Irish.

There's nothing like theater to make a story come alive, is there? You leave feeling exhilarated, even if the play is only good. When it's great, it can feel even ecstatic.

Amanda said...


thank you for bringing this playwright to my attention. the quote is powerful and from the sound of your review, his staged work is equally so.

Friko said...

I absolutely adore going to the theatre; sadly, the gaps between visits are getting longer. In London I went once a week, whenever I could get a cheap ticket.

I have not seen this play, it would indeed be interesting to see it played as an "Irish" play.

I am glad you had a good night out. It gives one such a boost.

The Solitary Walker said...

Ruth, Amanda & Friko: yes, that exhilarating, nerve-tingling feeling after watching a great piece of theatre is second to none. I think that feeling is a lot to do with it being a live event. Each performance is unique, and there's a direct connection between players and audience. When we lived in London, Friko - a long time ago - we also went to the theatre a lot more (usually the cheap seats up 'in the gods'!)

After the curtain, the actors & audience took part in a half-hour Q & A session about 'Yerma' - which was a really good idea, I think.