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Review: YERMA, Young Vic

Australian theatre's 'enfant terrible' Simon Stone, whose 2014 version of Ibsen's The Wild Duck at the Barbican memorably starred a live duck, has returned to take on Lorca's 1934 "tragic poem". If some of the elemental lyricism has been lost in this updating, which trades rural Spain for contemporary London, it's a small price to pay for a raw, searing work that builds to a shattering climax.

Billie Piper is 'Her' - the cool, thirtysomething journalist with an anti-materialistic blog, whose right-on existence is upended by the burning desire for a baby. She jokes with husband John that they can be "left-wing saboteurs" infiltrating the cosy parental world, but increasingly struggles to reconcile her biological urges with carefully planned life choices.

In our modern world, everything is there at the touch of a button (her mother lauds Deliveroo), except for this one messy, uncontrollable thing - all-consuming and agonisingly out of reach. As the years stretch on with no baby in sight, the absence of parenthood, the yawning void of no-child, comes to define Piper's character as much as she feared motherhood might, annihilating her career and relationships.

There's clearly something in the zeitgeist, with Gareth Farr covering similar terrain in The Quiet House earlier this year (part of a dedicated Fertility Fest at Park Theatre) - from the difficult process of IVF to the growing distance in a marriage, emotional and physical. Both plays feature a husband travelling for work, leaving the wife alone in a tortuously empty house.

Stone's crisp adaptation, which comes in under two hours, is divided into chapters - headings emblazoned on screens during scene changes. That echoes the protagonist's obsessive chronicling on a confessional blog, which goes viral when she exposes the ugliness of her experiences, from questioning John's fertility to secretly wishing miscarriage upon her sister.

That raw, revelatory style extends to the production, which (as with Wild Duck) displays the actors in a goldfish bowl-like glass box, refracting, distorting and holding them up to voyeuristic scrutiny. In Lizzie Clachan's emotive design, the box begins a sterile white, then becomes a dizzying blaze of colour as Her tries to fill the vacuum with a garden, marriage, the welcome obliteration of a festival, ecstasy teetering on the edge of madness. James Farncombe's lighting sharply punctuates the action, ramping up the tension, and Stefan Gregory's use of urgent choral music adds a bubbling panic and timeless tragic dimension.

Stone's writing is often darkly funny, as well as sensitively attuned to the subtler social pressures that conflict with personal choices. We may not have the overbearing Catholicism of Lorca's world (there's a lone Virgin Mary reference here), but there are other judgemental undercurrents that continue to fuel this painful taboo - and make Her's spilling of "darkest secrets" about infertility laudable as well as horrifying.

There is a slight self-consciousness to the 21st-century references, with Sadiq, Boris, gentrification, Lena Dunham, internet porn and Trump name-checked in quick succession, plus a character solely defined as 'Millennial'. But the family dynamic is totally convincing - with Maureen Beattie's brisk, feminist academic mother (who describes pregnancy as being "colonised by sperm"), Charlotte Randle's downtrodden sister and Piper's wild child bickering and talking over one another - as is her strained marriage and the playful awkwardness of her relationship with John MacMillan's ex Victor.

Brendan Cowell is superb as the easy-going husband bewildered by her transformation, and deeply hurt that their history is tossed aside for a phantom future. But the night belongs to Piper, whose grief seems wrenched from the soul. Her roar of "I can't!", when John implores her to give up this dream, is wild and primal, but it's the smaller touches that break your heart. When Victor, who conceives accidentally, reveals the due date of his baby, her response of "August. That's lovely" is both wretched and suffused with joy.

Over the course of the evening, we see each part stripped away: her wit, sexuality, compassion, finally her sanity. It's a storming performance that makes clear every act of creation is an act of destruction. She sacrifices everything she was to become what she desires, but the tragedy of the piece is that it leaves her with nothing.

Yerma is at the Young Vic until 24 September

Read Brendan Cowell's blog

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Marianka Swain was UK Editor-in-chief of BroadwayWorld. A London-based theatre critic and arts journalist, she also contributes to other outlets such as the Telegraph, The i Paper, Ham & H... (read more about this author)

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