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How Simon Stone radically reinvented an 84-year-old play
Initially, playwright and director Simon Stone wasn't sure Federico García Lorca's Yerma would resonate with modern-day audiences. To him, the 1934 tragedy about a Catholic woman in rural Spain whose longing for a child sends her over the edge seemed woefully out of date. "I was like, 'It's such a backwards view of women that I kind of can't condone doing that show,'" he recalls saying when London's Young Vic approached him about helming a production. But the 33-year-old director, who specializes in contemporary adaptations of period plays, uncovered a theme that seems particularly relevant to the 21st century: the ongoing battle surrounding women's reproductive rights.
In Stone's six-character, 100-minute take on Yerma, a woman identified simply as Her (played by Billie Piper) is a successful journalist in her thirties who has just bought a house with her partner, John (Brendan Cowell). But, thanks to a no-holds-barred blog and multiple rounds of IVF, her quest to give birth leads her down a destructive path, and she ends up alienating everyone around her as she sinks into despair.
"There's this burden on women that I wanted to talk about in the show," says Stone, whose U.K. staging of Yerma picked up 2017 Olivier Awards for Best Revival and Best Actress for Piper. "Not only are you the person that has the physical burden of any pregnancy, but you're also taking on the social trauma of being talked about the entire time. There's no social pressure even close to that for a man when they're talking about their body. Women's bodies are still owned in the public discourse by men to a certain extent."
Yerma has been imported to the Park Avenue Armory for a monthlong run with its lauded cast intact. "Of course it has to have the extraordinary performance from Billie," Stone says. "What pulls the whole thing together is that you've got this person who is willing to be completely honest, brutal, real." Best known stateside for her stints on Doctor Who and Penny Dreadful, Piper is making her New York stage debut in Yerma. She landed the role after Stone watched clips of her. "She was being incredibly playful and I thought, that's all I need," he says.
It turns out that's the way this singular director always casts his shows. "I don't audition people," Stone says. "I believe that you either believe in the actor or you don't. Also, I'm just asking them to be real in my shows, so if I get the sense that they're an honest, open human being, then, to a certain extent, everything else is just in the process of making a show together. It's not like I need to test whether they can do a good limp or a Brooklyn accent."
Interestingly, Stone started working with the cast before adapting the script. He actually wrote his version scene by scene during rehearsals, learning about the characters from the actors playing them. "I get a lot from the energy they bring," he says. "They're creating a three-dimensional being and I'm writing text for that person, so it's easy to start feeding them lines because I'm seeing them come into existence."
Stone -- who was born in Switzerland to Australian parents and currently lives in Vienna -- has done contemporary adaptations of Ibsen's The Wild Duck and Chekhov's Platonov in addition to Yerma. He says that's the direction he'll continue to pursue as he makes classics relevant for today's theatregoers.
"Yerma should always be taking place now," he says. "I take Chekhov and Ibsen at their word when they say a play is set now. That present is not when they originally did it. The present keeps being the present, keeps being now. So a piece of art continues to be what its essence is: endless reinvention for the ages."
To read about a student's experience at Yerma, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
Top image: Yerma. Photos by Stephanie Berger.
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