Yerma: A Heart Left Barren

Beautifully choreographed and presented, the One World Theatre production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Yerma was a pleasure to watch from beginning to end. It is an exceptional play as it is, and is rendered beautifully by director Bimal Subedi. The costumes and set design add to the impact of the play and encourage the actors to present their best acting. The actors do a great job, especially the female actors and particularly Namrata Shrestha, who brings Yerma to life through her wonderfully subtle performance.

Yerma is a play that depicts the psychological effect that her childlessness has on a young Andalusian woman. Andalusia is the part of Spain with a strong cultural identity and that makes the nation unique. It is a place in which the impact of Christianity, particularly Catholicism, mingles with multiple ancient and modern influences including pagan ones. Yerma portrays the plight of a woman who traverses these divisions at a great cost to her psyche. On the one hand, we see the practical and earthly pagan culture of a farming community that is in touch with the rhythms of nature and on the other a starkly patriarchal and demanding Christian one. Yerma’s husband Juan personifies the latter, he is a true husband—to his land, his sheep, and his wife. He is more concerned with possessing and accumulating than he is with love and happiness. It is difficult to decide whether Yerma suffers more as a result of her loveless marriage or her childlessness, or indeed, the lack of options available to a passionate and sensitive woman in her society. The play is not realistic as such, but dramatizes heightened emotions and sensibilities and tries to tell the truth about the human condition in a highly poetic and stylised manner. Subedi’s production highlights the magical and surreal quality of the play especially through the set design, and costumes that seem to fuse rural Nepal with Andalusia. The backdrop with fluffs of cotton stuck to it, the lattice screen, and rustic props serve both symbolic and aesthetic functions. The cotton in the background for instance, stands at once for sheep, clouds and the idea of farming and land, all of which are central to the play.

The metaphors and figures used in Lorca’s text are unusual and dramatic, for example, the character Maria, compares having a child within one’s body to holding a live bird within the cupped palms of one’s hands. The song that is sung by washer-women in one scene of the play and replaced in this version by women pounding grain, is filled with metaphors and similes that are strange but beautiful, that even when presenting the harshness and cruelty of women’s gossip, subtly connect it with the pain and pressure felt by all women at a psychic level. In having what Yerma cannot have, these women are in a position to criticise and diminish her, but behind their cattiness lies the fear of how precarious their own lives and positions are. That scene is very effectively rendered in Subedi’s production and is immediately identifiable to a Nepali audience, as a cultural trope if not an everyday reality. The line of women pounding mechanically suggests that few movements that diverge from this rhythm are available to a woman like Yerma. The interesting thing is that while Yerma never strays from the path that is marked for her in life, and never expresses a desire for anything other than what the culture dictates she should, namely a son, she is the one that is set apart from the other women and has her womanhood called into question numerous times. Yerma becomes something more than a woman precisely in believing so strongly and faithfully in the ideal of womanhood. Through her iridescent presence, Shrestha is able to bring out Yerma’s obstinate individuality and innocence, and the magical set and marvellous choreography helps her along.

Through his strange and beautiful poetry Lorca, who worked for many years alongside the surrealist painter Salvador Dali, has invented a language to talk about the suppressed pain of rural women with no formal education, combining the idiom of highly formalised poetry and folk verse. By presenting the helplessness and powerlessness of Yerma in such a stark way, and placing it alongside multiple attitudes, the play suggests that those who consider themselves to be on top of social hierarchies can only do so by denying the tenderness within themselves and trampling on it wherever they see it around them. Their cruelty is really a cover for their insecurity. And beyond it, a Yerma who is vulnerable and sensitive exists in each person. The cruelty that is required to bring Yerma to her state at the end of the play, is perpetrated on a social and collective level, which makes it so powerful and difficult to resist. Through her sensitive performance Shrestha manages to make palpable Yerma’s sensivity at the beginning and the hardness that it transforms to at the end of the play.The supporting cast is equally effective in performing the relentless social pressure that is exerted on Yerma.

Although Yerma seems to depict the fate of a childless woman, the pain that she expresses can be recognised by anyone who has felt reigned-in and suppressed by the demands and pressures of society. What Lorca’s play manages to do is to make Yerma’s state an existential and universal one, not one that is particular only to women. This aspect of the play, which makes Yerma a universal figure whose pain can be felt by anyone, could be brought out more in Subedi’s production, though I am at a loss to suggest how, since everything I saw on stage seemed seamlessly put together.

– Sristi Bhattarai
Ms Bhattarai is a teacher of English Literature, a poet and an essayist.