New Town Theatre, Edinburgh
August 20, 2015
Amina Khayyam’s Yerma is a neo-classical kathak telling of Federico Garcia Lorca’s tragic play about a woman who suffers the social stigma of being stuck in a childless marriage and thus unable to take what she sees as her rightful place in society. After many years frustration, she finally realises that her husband never did want a child and never will, leading to her strangle him in a final horrific act.
Originally set in the rural patriarchal and religiously repressive Spain of the 1930s, Khayyam reimagines the tale for a British inner-city community. For Edinburgh, she pares down the cast to just three, taking on the role of Yerma herself, while Lucy Teed and Jane Chan, faces painted half white, half brown, play the husbands, friends, gossipers and sisters, though all are played more as representatives of the various groups than specific characters.
Khayyam is always at the centre, the others frequently marching around her, bodies leant forward, arms held stiffly, fists clenched; stylised dance in stark contrast to the flowing classical kathak that is so full of intricate rhythms and patterns, especially from Khayyam herself.
It may be Yerma’s story, but there’s almost always the sense that it is Chan and Teed, representing society, that are in control. It’s a very effective representation of someone being imprisoned by society and its norms.
Kathak may primarily be a storytelling medium (it actually means the ‘art of storytelling’) this is a production that illustrates Yerma’s sad tale rather than laying it out. If you haven’t read the programme or at least have a basic knowledge of the story, it is generally difficult to follow.
The kathak is elegant and combines well with the contemporary edges the choreography is given here and there. The problem is that although Yerma’s public ridicule, anguish, heartbreak and more are all there, everything is all rather too restrained. It’s almost good-mannered. Khayyam has a very expressive face – her eyes especially – but a little more power, indeed anger and pain, would not come amiss. There were however two exceptions: a moment when she takes off her ankle bells and lays them out is full of sadness, and a later scene where she lets down her hair, smears her face with white paint and finally gets furious, rocking an imaginary baby in her arms.
The show is accompanied by some wonderful live music (again a mix of styles) by Debasish Mukherjee on tabla (who along with Khayyam and Tarun Jasani was responsible for the evocative score), Alastair Morgan (cello) and Lucy Rahman (vocals). It is also superbly lit by Stuart Walton, whose lighting picks out the dancers in the blackness to great effect. What a shame, though, that in doing so he could not find a way of letting us see more of the musicians who were so often hidden in the upstage gloom. A special mention too for Keith Khan’s stylish costumes.
Yerma continues to August 30. Details here.