“if I was being kind I would say that it was the intimacy of the studio space that made the climactic scene so uncomfortable”
This is the story of a marriage lived in rural Spain from the perspective of the titular Yerma, whose name translates as ‘barren’, a woman who desperately wants a son. Written by Federico Lorca in 1934, Cervantes Theatre have stuck somewhat to the original text whereas a recent, much praised Young Vic production was a modernised imagining. Whilst I didn’t manage to see either of the two London runs, it wasn’t for lack of trying. It was therefore with high expectations I went into this performance.
The actors can hardly be faulted. Leila Damilola as Yerma clearly puts her all into the role, so much so that during the bows she had to be supported to stand due to the severity of her sobbing from the final scene. Tom Whitelock as Juan strikes the balance between being both the subject and object of suffering whilst Coco Mbassi brings much needed light humour to this otherwise intensely unhappy tale. The whole cast is good, even if some of the characters appear somewhat superfluous.
Unfortunately, the text has not aged well, with the abundance of watery, fertility metaphors and various descriptions of breasts as mountains or as sand, sounding jarring to a modern ear.
Jorge de Juan’s direction felt clumsy and heavy-handed. The passage of time could have been made easier to follow, with no signal other than the explicit mention of the length of Yerma’s marriage. There were other choices as well which felt odd and made the story confusing. I lost patience entirely though in the final act when Yerma visits a local mystic to bring her a child, and the village women become possessed. It was too loud. Too manic. Too long. There is a limit to how much I can cope with convulsing and chanting before I itch to leave. If I was being kind I would say that it was the intimacy of the studio space that made the climactic scene so uncomfortable. Perhaps if I had been further away from the noise and the action I wouldn’t have found it so painful.
The goal of Cervantes Theatre, to perform great Spanish Theatre in the heart of London, is admirable. I am a strong proponent for performing work written in other languages on the London stage. We should indulge in foreign cultures more than ever, especially given the current climate of impending withdrawal from the EU. I just wish that this had been a better executed example.
War is not a concept we are unfamiliar with. In this world, there is always one country battling with another. Or, more tragically, one country with two opposing sides fighting each other. José Sanchis Sinisterra’s 1985 play, Ay Carmela! is a love letter of sorts to the Spanish Civil War, highlighting the terror and devastation that conflict leaves in its destructive path.
Paulino is alone in the dark of an empty theatre. Left with his thoughts and imagination becoming more vivid. Outside, the Spanish Civil War is still raging on, General Franco and his men are storming through Spanish towns, liberating them one by one of the communist-driven Republicans. Paulino was once part of a travelling, two-bit, music hall double act with his outspoken partner and lover Carmela. They found themselves caught behind enemy lines of Franco’s Nationalist party. They were forced to put a performance together, for both troops and prisoners, which ended in fatal circumstances, and replays in Paulino’s mind constantly. With the metaphysical appearances of Carmela, it is never clear whether this is in Paulino’s mind or a fantastical occurrence.
I would be interested to have seen this production in the original Spanish (which is performed on different dates throughout the run). There are elements to the version I saw that did not click which may be due to the translation (John London) to English. Certain phrases didn’t sit quite right and the style at times came across too over dramatic and hammy. In the Spanish language, this might have come across differently. As surreal and absurdist as the piece is, with many similarities to the work of Samuel Beckett, there are still moments that lacked clarity, or, more unfortunately, are just a little lacklustre. A good ten to fifteen minutes could have been shaved off in places.
Ivanhoe Norona as Paulino has certainly to be commended for his natural comic timing. His slapstick antics are sometimes reminiscent of the silent movie age. He tries to balance this with a more nuanced display of emotion, for intimate scenes, yet it is noticeable that the comedy is where he feels most comfortable. Madalena Alberto as Carmela is a vibrant force when present on stage, offering an innate chemistry between herself and Norona, bickering like an old married couple.
Enrique Muñoz, head of sound and video, did an excellent job in projecting black and white footage from the civil war onto the stage floor, enabling someone like myself, with no real knowledge of the conflict, to get a greater appreciation of its atrocities.
Ay Carmela! Is a highly allegorical play that illustrates the human price we pay for war. A symbolic depiction of the fear-mongering time of the civil war. Perhaps when you do not have a full understanding of the history of the Spanish Civil War, and combined with an English translation, which I imagine has lost some of the poeticism of the Spanish original, the play can be a slow and difficult to follow at times. Nevertheless, the cast and crew put together a production that is difficult to fault.