Current Issue #488

A controversial 85-year-old Spanish classic gets a modern Australian update in Yerma

Foul Play Theatre

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.

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.” 

Foul Play Theatre

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?”

8 – 23 November


Ena Grozdanic

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