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Thursday 17 March 2011

Preview: Yerma at West Yorkshire Playhouse

Preview by Rym Kechacha

Born just outside Granada in the heart of Andalucía, the influential Spanish writer Federico Garcia Lorca was highly influenced by the rhythms and shapes of flamenco. In that cruel way that life often has of imitating art, his inner world was just as tortured as that of his characters- full of longing, isolation and ending in a brutal murder.

The folk song and dance of Andalucian gypsies, flamenco is the expression of all the anguish of a persecuted race, clinging on to survival at the fringes of society. Unsurprisingly, plagued by the struggle to accept his sexuality, he identified strongly with this secretive yet passionate culture. His work seeps with the indefinable energy at the heart of flamenco known as duende. Wild, untameable and roused from the furthest habitations of the blood, the presence of duende is what elevates great art from a mere distraction; but comes with pain, suffering and often death.

Few attempted to paint a picture of the indescribable as earnestly as Lorca, and few did as much for such a previously marginalised art form. The publication of his book, Romanceros Gitanos (1928), made gypsy culture and flamenco mainstream, beginning the world’s love affair with the ruffled skirt and Spanish guitar. With his trilogy of rural plays, he revived Spanish theatre and attracted notice as a dissenting and modern voice. His tumultuous, and some say sexually tense, friendships with Salvador Dali and Luis Buñel, also part of La Generación del 27, resulted in collaborations such as the play Mariana Pineda (1923-25) and Un Chien Andalou (1929). These early experiments in surrealism were well received as indicators of the artists’ capabilities, but also became the catalysts for their permanent estrangement. This creativity was halted abruptly at the hands of General Franco’s fascist regime, when Lorca was mysteriously killed in Granada in 1936 and his work was banned from performance in Spain for 20 years.

Yerma (1934), the first of Lorca’s plays to be staged at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, is the tale of a woman’s unbearable yearning for a child. This version directed by Róisín McBrinn from a new translation by Ursula Rani Sarma is performed in English and not set specifically in Spain, but instead in an archetypal rural community which is oppressive with tradition and duty.

Lorca devoted much attention to all aspects of the theatre - a dedicated pianist and admirer of dance, the physical and musical life of his works was extremely important to him. He asked his actors to feel the motivation of the characters in their bodies and was deeply concerned that the rhythm of both the prose and verse of his work was powerful. His reverence for the ‘cante jondo’ (deep song) of flamenco winds its way into his plays, making the text read like poetry; but this is not always useful for every director’s interpretation. The washerwomen, who become almost like a Greek chorus with their cryptic commentary, the earthy rhythm of their lyrics and the repetitive action of washing their clothes has the potential to devolve into a song and dance interlude; something the production’s movement director, Yael Loewenstein, is keen to avoid. Despite having a highly trained dance background, she wants no gesture on stage to appear as a dance, instead using the breath of the actor to inform the movement. This results in an organic response that grows and develops with each performance and never remains static. Yael says, ‘We have feelings all the time, and they constantly change. That is why I think we like going to the theatre- overall, meaning is the guiding force.’

Yerma continues at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, until 26 March. For further information please visit www.wyp.org.uk. Box Office 0113 213 7700

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