The story of a woman trapped in a childless and loveless
marriage, yearning for motherhood so desperately that she enacts violence upon
her husband, drew the ire of the conservative Catholic audience. With Lorca’s
assassination in 1936, and the Fascist victory of 1939, the play wasn’t
performed in Spain again until the early 1960s. The fissures that culminated in
Yerma’s destruction – her wrestling between desire and honour, agency and fate,
rebellion and social order – still resonate today. Yerma provides no easy resolutions, however, rather it is a play
that brims with tension and ambiguity.
This month, Rumpus Theatre will premiere a reworking of Yerma, commissioned by FoulPlay, which will see the production informed by a “2019 thermomix” of contemporary pressures. Written by playwright Holly Brindley, our protagonist is reimagined: she’s still married to Juan, though theirs is a tender and loving union. While Yerma still craves motherhood, she’s no longer a rural Catholic bride but a modern Muslim woman. More precisely, Yerma is a 40-year old Muslim woman, who migrated to Australia from the UK – much like actor and theatre polymath Yasmin Gurreeboo.
“Yerma’s heritage is my heritage—I’m Muslim and we’re not trying to hide the fact that I have a UK accent! It felt important that we could bring my background and personal context to the role, that we could have a protagonist who was Muslim and a complex, layered character,” Gurreeboo says. She worked closely with Brindley to develop Yerma, and it was important to both artists that they represent a woman of colour – specifically a Muslim woman of colour –on stage. “This is not your stereotypical role, as is most often the case when we see Muslim characters. They’re either connected to terrorists or they’re your 2D ‘cornershop’ roles. You don’t see ‘normal’ or ‘complicated’ Muslims. Our Yerma doesn’t wear a headscarf, but she does pray. She’s messy and nuanced.”
Yerma’s husband Juan, performed by actor Nick Bennett, has converted to Islam though he hasn’t fully embraced spirituality—his faith is superficial, predicated on acceptance from Yerma’s family rather than true belief. “Through this need for her family’s approval of Juan, we see that Yerma continues to follow what’s socially expected of her, much like the original character.”