Voluptuous poetry

24th January 2003 at 00:00
Timothy Ramsden looks at how Lorca elevates ordinary experience

YERMA. By Federico Garcia Lorca. The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Director Helena Kaut-Howson praises Pam Gems' translation of Lorca's play about a childless woman in rural Spain for capturing the mix of "down-to-earth, ordinary people and voluptuous poetry". The poetry is vital, she says, reflecting "a Roman Catholic sense of abundance, of pleasure and death so close together". Lorca sought a new idiom, away from the "overt, Gothic, overheated" style of such dramatists as Valle-Inclan, consciously following the way Synge and Yeats had forged a poetic style rooted in Irish rural speech.

Kaut-Howson is fascinated by the way that, in the work of male playwrights such as Lorca and Tennessee Williams, women's frustrated sexuality becomes a metaphysical frustration. She distinguishes between two fundamental types of personality.

One, represented by Yerma's husband Juan (Peter Gowen) and her could-be lover Victor (Oliver Haden) she calls materialistic, able to live only for what can be seen. The other is Yerma (Denise Black), the idealist or maximalist "whose aspirations are all connected with transforming, changing things. As a woman she's frustrated, so channels this into wanting a son".

She can only imagine her aspirations being realised by a male version of herself. It's not a matter of sympathy; Yerma's husband Juan is no villain: he's insecure, lacking the status of being a father.

Kaut-Howson sees Yerma as the play's most conformist character. "At the start Yerma and Juan want to make something of their marriage. She doesn't join in other women's flippant comments, and can't do what others would in a very repressive society - run off with a man, adopt a child or enjoy life and love her husband. She's too energetic to be just a housewife.

She's got to have what she's decided will create a transformation."

Her predicament is exacerbated by being in 1930s Spain, though Yerma is a tragedy, not an issue play, asking questions rather than offering answers.

Nor is plot Lorca's interest: the proposed elopement with Victor soon peters out as a story-trail while, structurally, the play does not proceed as a developing narrative but in an alternating series of interior and exterior scenes.

Simon Higlett's design focuses on the outside (leaving Jason Taylor's lighting to suggest interiors). There's an overall economy (each scene allowed just one significant prop), emphasising the play's tragic inevitability. And Yerma's restlessness is expressed in the undulating floor - a slightly pregnant abdomen, possibly. It's somewhere with no resting-place, arid when indoors, but with flowing water during exterior scenes, reflecting Lorca's stream of liquid references - milk, water, blood - and their sense of fertility.

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