Yerma by Federico Garcia Lorca, adapted Michael Dewell & Carmen Zapata

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BBC Radio 3, 26 September 2010

On the evidence of Pauline Harris’ production, Yerma emerged as ritualistic play linking the act of childbirth to the progress of the seasons and the renewal of the world. A new helped invigorate the world; barrenness destroyed it. Hence Yerma’s (Emma Cunniffe's) childlessness was not only ‘unnatural,’ it was potentially destructive to the future of her rural society. Hence she was ostracized; to accept her in the village community’s midst might have prompted questioning of the idea of female fertility.


Harris emphasized the importance of ritual; the celebration of fertility, the annual pilgrimages, the need for single men to undergo some form of initiation to render them ‘suitable’ for marriage. In Michael Dewell's and Carmen Zapata‘s supple translation, the play did not have much dialogue, but rather a series of incantations, songs and dances emphasizing the importance of order within the community. The only way to eliminate Yerma’s potential threat was to perform further rituals, which is precisely what the washerwomen (Kate Layden, Debbie McAndrew, Fionnuala Dorrity) did by taunting her about her childless state.


Why should Yerma have been like this? Her husband Victor (Declan Wilson) was a well-meaning but misguided soul, concerned to provide an acceptable standard of living – good house, plenty of food – through hard work, but unable to understand the effect of childlessness on his wife’s psyche. When she sat outside all night, or roamed the barren Spanish landscape, she was not ‘deviant,’ but simply looking for ways to voice her frustrations. Victor’s response only served to increase her stress, as he brought his two sisters (Rebecca Callard, Clare Benedict) in to police her actions; now she was not only subject to community censure, but a victim of patriarchal rule. Harris emphasized how males cannot understand female ways of thinking; for the most part they think of happiness in material rather than emotional terms.


Harris emphasized the presence of different ‘realities’ in Yerma’s world: the idealized realities communicated through song; the dreamlike worlds of the rituals, in which individuals sublimated their identities and recognized the importance of community participation. Although only seventy-five minutes long, this production was sonically dense, combining music, dance, chants and dialogue. It demanded close attention, while proving beyond doubt that Lorca was an important figure in the canon of twentieth-century European drama, as he addressed contemporary issues of gender construction and female sexuality through an historical plot.