A controversial 85-year-old Spanish classic gets a modern Australian update in Yerma
When Federico García Lorca’s marital tragedy Yerma premiered in 1934, it provoked a riot in the theatre. A new Adelaide production brings the play roaring into the present.
Bennett, Gurreeboo, and Brindley have collaborated before, on another reimagining of a classic work—Julie, based on August Strindberg’s 1888 play, which similarly explored female power and sexuality. With Yerma, the Brindley’s divergences from Lorca’s original – a loving marriage, Islamic rather than Catholic faith –are modern responses to its underlining themes. “It wouldn’t make sense for Yerma and Juan not to be in love—that would render their situation too clear-cut. This play is about exploring a tangled relationship,” Gurreeboo explains.
“Thinking about the value set of the play, there is a sense of duty and obligation, and motherhood is exalted. This is congruent with the Islamic tradition. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is quoted as saying, ‘your Heaven lies under the feet of your mother.’ In the contemporary secular world, motherhood isn’t viewed through the same lens—hence we thought that the key elements were applicable with a Muslim character. There are other crossovers, for example paganism, which we draw upon though not as heavily as in the original. Yerma visits a fortune teller. The idea that a human being can predict the future isn’t sanctioned in Islam, so she has to come to terms with choosing to do that.”
Substituting Catholicism with Islam is fitting for a play that originated in Andalusia—the Andalusia of folklore, of orange trees and Arabesque architecture, of cultural traditions animated by both Christian and Islamic Empires. The vital aspect of this reworking, Gurreeboo stresses, is that Yerma doesn’t commit violence due to her religion—she is driven to the act once her faith crumbles. This is important for the audience to note, as too often when Islam is portrayed on stage or on screen, it is religion—rather than individual or social circumstance—that is adjudicated. “Sometimes I’m afraid that audiences will make automatic judgements,” she says. “It’s tricky because there’s this pressure of responsibility when you’re dealing with representation. You can never speak on behalf of everyone, nor should you try to, and you just hope that a viewer abandons any narrow perceptions they may have.
“There’s a great sadness in this work, because the two people haven’t learned how to communicate and be honest with each other. They genuinely love each other, but their innermost desires are unspoken. I’m interested in leaving the audience with something to think about – with a question to answer in relation to the story. Where do they think responsibility lies?”