We are often told that Lorca's famous 1934 study of female barrenness is a metaphor for Spain. But in Helena Kaut-Howson's vivid production, part of the Arcola's Lorca festival, the political implications look after themselves. What you get is an individual tragedy in which Yerma's childlessness is unforgettably embodied by Kathryn Hunter. Hunter is a small, fragile-seeming figure, but she acts with every inch of her expressive body. As she cries: "Look at the branches, they move in the sun," her coiling, writhing frame seems mocked by the fruitfulness of nature. In solitude, Hunter's Yerma is a passionate creature forever caressing her loins in an agony of frustration; only with her unloved husband, Juan, does she turn rigid and cold. She is at her best in a scene of farewell to the shepherd, Victor, with whom she grew up. Hunter's Yerma is a searing study of an unlived life. On a stage virtually bare except for a tree and a rock-pool, Kaut-Howson creates a strong sense of community. The sisters-in-law who closely guard Yerma glide across the stage like nuns on castors. The great scene where the village women wash their clothes becomes a taunting ritual as they pound the soaking garments against the stone floor with rhythmic fervour. And, in a communal pilgrimage to a mountain shrine, an erotically charged dance by the lithe, masked figures of Gary Carr and Yvonne Wandera evokes the physical ecstasy Yerma has been denied. Frank McGuinness's translation is spare and direct: at one point Yerma poignantly cries, "Jesus, if I could only have the boy myself." The production also avoids easy ridicule of men, by suggesting that Antonio Gil-Martinez's Juan is almost as tragic as Yerma in his fixation with land and profit. Even Vincenzo Nicoli's Victor, who longs for Yerma as much as she for him, seems the victim of his own emotional inarticulacy. But it is Hunter one will remember for her portrait of Yerma's descent into self-hatred, in a culture that treats fertility as a sign of moral virtue.


Michael Billington, The Guardian

There is such savage beauty, such ravishing cruelty in Helena Kaut-Howson’s production of Federico García Lorca’s 1934 folk tragedy that it leaves you torn. The play, in Frank McGuinness’s sinewy translation, sets the sacred against the profane, sensuality against repression and duty against instinct. Its battles are fought in song, ritual and richly symbolic dialogue dragged from the characters’ gut and from the earth on which their livelihoods depend. At its centre is Yerma, whose name means barren, and who yearns in vain for a child.Kathryn Hunter’s enthralling lead performance and Kaut-Howson’s full-blooded approach embrace García Lorca’s poetry to create a throbbing, thrillingly realised whole.

Sam Marlowe, The Times

© Helena Kaut-Howson 2021