Since opening its doors in 2016, Southwark’s Cervantes Theatre has quietly become a force to be reckoned with, with intimate bilingual stagings of classic Spanish works, counterpointed with new writing. In their current production of Yerma, Lorca’s enduring “tragic poem”, director Jorge de Juan has seamlessly transposed the action to an Afro-Cuban setting, where the unhurried pace of life highlights how empty Yerma’s days truly are. I saw the English language version, which has a completely different cast to the Spanish version, with only Venezuelan TV star Gledys Ibarra appearing in both, although in different roles. The cast are uniformly excellent, marrying the sometimes-ornate translation by Carmen Zapata and Michael Dewell with the spare, stately direction. Leila Damilola anchors the piece as Yerma, rarely offstage, emerging at the start of the play from a giant hammock draped across the stage in a potent act of symbolism.
The standout moment is when the slow and steady pace gives way to an explosive ritual scene performed in Fang and Yoruba, and choreographed by Jordan Mba, as the women of the town pray in vain for Yerma. As the play heads towards its inevitable tragic climax, the action is kept intimate and spare yet again, allowing the full weight of Yerma’s desperation to sink in. Damilola unearths a raw and shattering performance, and the director wisely entrusts her to carry the play’s final moments, which will stay with you for some time. Highly recommended.