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Simon Stone's Yerma at the Young Vic- a few questions, a few answers and where the author argues with herself

A glass rectangular box as cold as ice. That's indeed the feel when the lights go down at the Young Vic theatre and come up again on the kind of designer house that one can find all over London, never mind Hackney. Looking at Billie Piper and  Brendan Cowell as She and John onstage in Yerma I am reminded for a moment of Jo Hogg's 2013 film Exhibition. Hogg though, tells stories with sound, taking us on a different trajectory and into an internal world. However the feel is the same. The territory is familiar, the aesthetics not. The content will be, as I will find out, abrasive.

I have to confess. I have not read the play by Federico García Lorca (it would be more shameful to not admit it). So I am not able to make comparisons and can only guess at the modern day changes the creative team have brought in during improvisations in rehearsals, the changes that are beyond the obvious that is.

However I have some questions after seeing it only once (I acknowledge that once is never enough. So of course, I will be doing my best to see the show again, if only to mull over what I will write below).

The questions are: 

Why does She have to be upper/ middle class? Why does this still matter? (She is not in Lorca's original presumably, as her husband grows olives) (Should this be even a question? Is it the same as asking Woody Allen "just why are all your women of a certain ilk" etc?) But  why is it not possible for She to be perhaps Polish for example and high up on the food chain or Polish and lower down on the food chain (or insert any nationality) struggling with three customer service jobs and still wanting a baby? Or is this a stupid question? Or is it that today's audience may not find this appealing (that is their problem) or that there are certain assumptions about suffering that are reserved for only certain sorts of women held in the minds of our theatre going audiences (a repulsive notion I know and I am sure it is not true, but it might explain partly why Sarah Kane wrote the way she did)?

Why does She have to be in a glass box? How are the audience being asked to see her? (clue: as an exhibit, a China doll in a glass house, or, if one looks up and sees all the theatrical lights quite close to the stage and not really hidden (it is not always fourth wall)  perhaps even as an actress in the Young Vic itself and onstage for all to see?)

Therefore, as I have touched on the question of a glass box, often used by director Simon Stone, what is the conceit?

Why do we have chapter headings and why are we being told what to feel? This last question does not come from me. It comes from others (without any clarification over whether we mean empathy or sympathy). At first I agreed i.e., that we are being 'told' how to feel, but now, having thought about it, I have to object because the chapter headings are not telling the audience what to feel. They are telling us what She may be feeling or what is about to happen to She. They are suggestive and it is up to us how to feel, although certainly, we are encouraged along a certain path. Does the fact that feelings are suggested rather than prescribed change anything though? Isn't the effect the same: that inwardly one might rebel at being told or it being suggested what is an emotionally appropriate reaction here (or there) and therefore one does the opposite or resists stubbornly and will not empathise? Audience emotion, empathy and even sympathy, comes from the gap in between what the actor hints at, leaving the audience to make up the shortfall in their hearts (or minds if it is sympathy). If someone says cry, I might not cry even if others are. But if I see someone genuinely cry just a bit and I am not expecting it, even out of context there's a good chance I will cry with them (if they 'over' cry I might not). But I won't if you instruct me to.  So, I won't believe that the chapter headings, indicating or hinting at how an audience should emotionally respond (are they?)are not meant to intentionally arouse these conflicts.  Is the use of chapters a comment on how we are being constantly told by the media, the goverment etc to embody and feel and respond to a narrative as well as being an inversion of She's blog, where the director gets to write what will happen (and so control) what will happen to She rather than She relating what has happened? Is She actually writing her own chapters in the third person, so far disturbed she can only think of herself in that way and is writing her own death, life mirroring art, or even, is she making herself a victim? Fulfilling her own prophecy of doom? Is this an inversion of self harm? Who does her confessional blog harm? the answer, everyone...all her lovers.


Which leads me onto this question:

Are there some emotional steps missed out of the show
During the show I was puzzled to see She finally lose it, though I had been waiting for it since curtain up. How, I was wondering to myself, just how has she got to this place? It is not that she has not got there because obviously Piper does get there, but only that we don't see it. Stone gives a picture of real life to the audience by making them into voyeurs, by making them be on the outside of She's suffering and not privy to her most intimate moments.. but I don't want real life or this metaphorical glass box through which we see everyone. No, what I wanted to see was How? How did She get to the point of break down because, I reasoned, if we see How, if we can actually see that moment when she goes beyond all hope, as in Streetcar, then perhaps we can understand better. 
However, I am in the wrong. Don't be seduced.  That is, don't be seduced into thinking and believing that an answer or cure can be provided for She and should be (although it is in Joe Turner's Come and Gone) and believe the myth that, if only those closest to her (or just someone) had been there at the right time then things might have turned out differently. Because it is not the point is it? Art can't cure, it can only empathise, which I have always told myself is what a person needs. Not advice but love. Somehow. Yet I was angry because She was not better understood and that her real turning points and moments of reaching utter madness (i.e the cause and not the effect) were kept off stage so that a cure to her ills could not be found. I still want to believe in cures. Despite my best self, I want to be cured even as I crave empathy, when in fact, no one can be your cure, no one can show you the path you must walk, although perhaps someday someone, if you are insanely lucky, may light it up for you in that warm empathetic glow they call love.

As I write this I am watching the Yerma audience come out of the matinee and I am wondering whether they are pondering the same questions: I hope they are, because this is the job, as far as I can see, that this production has set itself.

But despite having worked out all this, why was I unaffected by the play? Am I meant to be unaffected? Is Stone holding up a mirror to society and saying, this is what we do with such people, we put them in glass boxes like Snow White, and watch them slowly slip down the slippery path, the very act of watching disallowing engagement, preventing it somehow, making everyone helpless? Isn't this what we do? Yes, we do. But there's no blame attached if this is what is happening. This is unfortunately, how it is.

Or was judgment getting in my way and on the day, preventing me from feeling? What is true of my experience? Certainly I could not write with the rapture and brilliance that Susannah Clapp did in her review: it is obvious she was set on fire by the show (her review was a piece of art in itself).
Judgment is one of these awful things. "It is very hard not to judge" said my new brother-in-law a month ago. Yep I nodded wisely, looking at my 13 year old new nephew-in-law who had had a mild argument with his mother and was swallowing tears. Yup, it's the hardest thing in the world and though I am someone who prides (!) myself on not judging (i.e. unless you are a mass murderer I'll really try and start over with you every day (and so myself) no matter what has gone before, neigh, even if you are a mass murder) but, nevertheless, I was judging Yerma. Right from the get go. Does the judgment come from this:  that again we are seeing a play about a sexy middle class woman  break down onstage in a play written by a man and directed by a man (if you doubt me, how about Beauty Queen of Leenane? A working class family and the breakdown there was definitely not sexy, not attractive, very dark). How many men were just lapping this up?  Am I being cruel, crude to wonder this?  I can't help it, I can't ignore it, the moan is there. The question is, how valid is my moan? Or is it my problem that it is still a problem for me or is my problem real? A part of me was screaming inside "I don't want this anymore." But is this because that I identify less with having break downs at this particular point in my life? (I'll admit it and get personal) What this says about me is not that great and fairly typical too and rather disappointing. But as a reluctant woman who identifies, if I have to identify, as a gender queer person who does not want to transition but who nevertheless feels more male than female (whatever that means) what bit of myself matched any bits of her? She felt as far away from me as the farthest star (about 55 million light years away). I don't meet the grade. That grade of woman. That level of 'success.'
 But am I being jealous, selfish even? The answer to the latter question is yes, because why the hell should I have to identify with her to even have sympathy? It is not about me. But obviously, questions on who She was and judgments about this were getting in the way. Am I jealous? That I am not that kind of woman and never will be and can't be and unfortunately it is this kind that always seems to be held up as the only example to aspire to? Or the only example attractive to men? And women.  It is not that She should not be someone to aspire to but that, there should be more choices of women on our stages that are more representative of us/them.  I repeat the question, why couldn't She be different? It is not that I just object to the fact that there is a Western preoccupation with watching successful rich women have break downs ( I don't think) but that what I object to is the fact that this narrow representation of women onstage seems to be pretty much the norm so is reductive. Where are the plays where the 'heroine' is, well, not very well off? And still sexy? And still attractive and a madam and a character and all of that and can still have a breakdown? Or is this not possible? Is this a wealth question, a class question? Where are the Stellas as well as the Blanches? Are we all seduced by something?  And if the norm was working class women, of any nationality, struggling to make money and have children and break down and this was all we saw onstage and nothing else, I would still object.

Do I object to the fact that I think I am being asked to look at a woman through the eyes of a man? That my narrative perspective is being decided for me?

Really the question is- have we gone beyond the need to debate how we depict women onstage and what kind of woman can suffer what, or is the debate only just beginning?

But perhaps the real problem, on that day anyway, was me. The production is nearly faultless. But I wasn't in the mood on the day. I just could not open myself up as I normally am able. I could not just let the show come to me, I could not let it affect me and so, it did not. And so desperately did I want it to.

Does this mean there is something wrong with me? I can't help wondering, if I had directed the show- if I had written it- would my choices have been the same? Probably not because my experience of life is so, so different. And what is different is not the outer actions- i.e self harm, breakdowns etc, but causes, the inner life. 

How do we portray inner lives that give a sense of the eternal, the vast, rather than just the external, i.e women and men breaking down? And when we decide that a person is mentally ill or is having a break down, do we all unconsciously view them from a position of superiority and is that right?

Make up your minds and go and see the show for yourself. If anything, it is utterly thought provoking. 






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