Yerma: Barren it ain’t

Image for Yerma, directed by Geoffrey HylandThe Buddhists have it right. Desire causes unhappiness. And frustrated desire can make you crazy.

Now it’s asking for a public flogging to state frustrated desire to bear a child, compounded by biological imperative, has the ability to drive some women mad with the unrelenting grief of what they are unable to have.

But I withhold my opinion on this – particularly since our biological imperative is out of step with a planet groaning under the weight of our species – it’s an observation offered by Spanish playwright and poet Frederico Garcio Lorca in his play Yerma.

Mitigating circumstances: It was 1934 in Republican, Roman Catholic Spain.

Another famous Spaniard, Pablo Picasso, would, when any of his wives or mistresses became restless, advise them to simply have a child (he had four children borne by three women). Such were the times. Also, his play was a hard-hitting critique of repressive, republican Spain.

It’s interesting to note that Lorca was homosexual, which was more socially unacceptable in right-wing Spain circa 1934 than it is for a man to depict a woman’s reproductive hysteria in left wing SA circa 2018; he was assassinated by the state just four years after Yerma was written and staged.

Lorca may not have known what it is like to be a woman unable to bear a child, but he was familiar with frustrated desire and repression. Thus Yerma’s yearning for a son can be read as a metaphor for his own inability to give birth to his true nature; to be in public as he was in private. More prosaically, he was directing a company that took theatre to rural Spain, and the social expectations placed on women seemed to have appalled him. This interplay between the personal metaphor and social critique is worth bearing in mind while viewing Geoffrey Hyland’s version of Yerma at UCT’s Little Theatre, as it enriches the experience of watching 16 graduate students, pregnant with possibility, performing on a blood-red cross before a black moon upon a thrust stage.

There’s quite a lot of thrusting, but unlike Yerma’s womb, it is not for nought. This production bears fruit, particularly for the women, whose fecund acting abilities carry this play beyond a student performance into the realm of the professional. The men are, for the most part, rather stiff, although Adam Lennox and Tevin Musara who, in an inspired twist, play Yerma’s pious sisters, and are fantastic. Self-righteousness and hypocrisy are revealed in a roll of the eye, a glare, or the twist of the mouth. Their somewhat affected movements of the male acting the female add to the aura of their dogmatic disdain.

A stand-out performance was that of Bianca Oosthuizen as the lascivious, bitchy Conchita. She made it hers, but the entire ensemble of women can be commended for taking on their various village character roles as they gossip at the river.

In the leads, Mphumzi Nontshinga put on such a good Juan, the audience applauded his demise, and there was no doubt as to Cassandra Mapanda’s commitment to being Yerma. Caleb Swanepoel’s Victor was good to look at, but the jury is out over whether he was smoulderingly intense, or unexpressive. To be fair, being the silent, emotionally repressed, honour-bound third wheel is a tricky role. You pretty much need to be Marlon Brando.

It was great to see real water, and real food being used. On a multi-level set designed by Jenni-lee Crewe that allows for settings as diverse as the dinner table, a river and a well, the women wash, draw water, do laundry – those in the front row must’ve got splashed. The direction by Hyland, assisted by Puleng Stewart, enables it all to occur seamlessly, the ability to distract with a surfeit of bodies on stage assisting, but that in itself requiring skilfull choreography, for which Jared Musiker can take a bow. Kobus Roussouw’s lighting between upstage and downstage, which was divided by a moon and portal-holding scrim, assisted in creating the surreality Lorca was attracted to.

There were a few stage exits that revealed the inexperience of the cast, but these can be easily remedied with a bit of whip-cracking. Provided the thrust and set can be accommodated on another stage, this production could easily have a professional life, if it wanted to. There’s no need for it to remain shrouded within the institution.

Yerma is on at the Little Theatre on Hiddingh Campus until Saturday 14 April. Tickets at the door or pre-book by emailing little.theatre@uct.co.za

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