The 'depth and potency' of Yerma

Director Max Hafler on Lorca’s classic play

CORE THEATRE College and NUI Galway theatre and drama students join forces for a staging of Federico García Lorca’s Yerma, translated by Peter Luke, which will be presented at the Mick Lally Theatre, Druid Lane.

This is the first of a number of exciting projects in which students on the NUIG drama programmes will act and work closely with Galway theatre professionals in public productions that combine putting on a show with teaching skills to young actors.

Yerma is a classic of world theatre, written and first performed in 1934, just two years before Lorca’s death during the Spanish Civil War. The play is about a young woman living in a small village who cannot have the one thing she desperately yearns for, a baby with her husband.

Yerma (her name means ‘barren’ in Spanish) finds her obsessive desire for a child alienates her from those around her. The villagers are not cruel but nevertheless she feels excluded. Yerma believes a family and children is what God and society expect. Her isolation and thwarted desires take her on a terrible journey that culminates in a dramatic and tragic finale.

Lorca’s play is about the hunger to conform and the dangers of obsession. It is full of fierce passion, music, and rhythm. It is both poetic and brutally realistic and a drama of visceral power.

The music of Lorca

Director Max Hafler is no stranger to Lorca, having previously directed Blood Wedding, and he describes the appeal of the writer.

“One of the most amazing things about Lorca is the way that he manages to mesh heightened poetic drama with a naturalistic domestic situation that everyone can understand,” Hafler tells me. “That gives the play incredible depth and potency which you wouldn’t get with just a realistic drama. The other thing I really love about him is the use of music in his work.”

Indeed music plays a big part in Hafler’s staging of Yerma.

“When you look at the play there is loads of singing in it and I was very lucky to find a student, Katerina Kavanova, who is a great singer and is also studying Spanish,” he says. “We’ll have live music with a classical guitarist, Sean McLaughlin, and most of the music in the production has been composed specially for it.

“With the play and the singing is that you really want to have the songs in Spanish, so we have some of the songs in Spanish and some of it is underpinned with the guitar and we keep it spoken so you still have that lyricism.”

Hafler shares his thoughts on the play’s central concerns.

“I think one of the interesting things about Yerma, compared to Blood Wedding, is that Yerma is much more about religion, even though there are no priest figures in the story,” Hafler says.

“The play is about a woman who lives in a village, she is married and wants to have a baby. She ends up at this religious festival where women who can’t have children go to pray to the Virgin Mary, but what happens is that all the local men are hanging about, getting drunk, and prowling around on the hunt for the women. It struck me that the play, like all of Lorca’s plays, is about how somebody doesn’t fit into society and how do they cope. Of course for Lorca, as a gay man in 1930s Spain, that was an issue that he had to face himself as well.”

Not a black and white situation

The character of Yerma has been variously viewed as either a tragic heroine or a wilful rebel, how does Hafler see her?

“In the 1970s and 1980s Yerma was considered a very feminist play, yet when you examine it, it is also about a woman who does have options, even if those options are limited,” he replies. “She isn’t having a child with her husband and some of the other women say to her ‘You just have to put up with it, and maybe you will have a child eventually.”

“She also has the possibility of leaving her husband and having a child with someone else but she won’t take that up. For her the child has to be with her husband and it has to be within the structure of that society. I think one of the reasons Lorca is quite popular in Ireland is that there is a real understanding here of those kinds of rural lives and society and how small villages operate.”

Yerma’s marriage to her husband Juan is made intolerable by their childlessness, and his disinterest in having a child is in stark contrast to her own ardent desire for one.

“It is very easy to see Juan as the villain but I don’t think he is,” Hafler observes. “We all know people who are in that kind of situation, it is not easy for either of them. In a way, it is not even relevant to me who is infertile.

“The fact is you have a woman in this position, it is all about how they are expected to behave in a certain way. Juan becomes suspicious of Yerma and doesn’t want her to go out, he does that almost straight away, he’s immediately worried that she might go off with another man.

“You get the feeling he is uptight from the beginning, but not necessarily totally unlikeable, but very shortly within the play’s timeframe he turns into this gaoler. On the other hand he can’t solve her problem for her either so it is a horrible situation. One of the things Lorca is really good at is he can write these scenes where, as I said to the cast, the audience must feel as if the last place they want to be is in this room because the characters can’t handle this awful atmosphere. It is a very volatile situation.

“Juan behaves badly but it’s a kind of understandable badness given the society in which he lives. As for Yerma, she becomes obsessive – for any person if they don’t get something about which they are obsessive that is a psychologically dangerous situation to be in. One of the things I really like about the play is that it is not black and white.”

The NUIG/Core Theatre College production has a cast of 10 with Aoife Corry as Yerma and Peter Kenny as Juan. It runs at the Mick Lally Theatre from Thursday February 13 to Saturday 15 at 8pm.

 

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