Billie Piper says her latest stage role, about a woman desperate to have a child, feels very relevant because it’s an issue being faced by many women she knows.
“It chimed quite vividly with me because so many of my friends are finding it quite hard to go through that,” Piper says. “It seems to be a very common topic at the moment.”
Piper plays the title role of Yerma in a modern retelling of Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1934 tragedy about a woman whose desperation to become a mother is met with indifference by her husband.
Simon Stone’s version, which begins previews at the Young Vic this week, relocates the action from rural Spain to contemporary London.
Speaking during a break in rehearsals, Piper admits she hadn’t heard of the play until she was approached about the role at the end of last year.
“I read the original, and I thought that it was one of the most beautiful pieces of poetry,” she says. “It’s that story of a modern woman who is suddenly suffocated and strangled by her ticking clock.
“I witness that all around me, and I read about it frequently. I thought that it seemed like a very relevant piece of work.”
Stone, who also directs, is no stranger to giving classic plays a modern makeover.
His adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck played at London’s Barbican in 2014. It also inspired his debut feature film, The Daughter, starring Geoffrey Rush and Miranda Otto.
Stone, who has been described as Australian theatre’s enfant terrible, says he likes to liberate pre-existing stories that are “maybe a little bit stuck in their era”.
“I’m always looking for myths for the modern world,” he says. “Yerma is a play that I loved and thought about a lot, but hadn’t got round to putting it at the top of my list of priorities.
“It’s a great story about a woman who becomes so preoccupied by the idea of having a child and increasingly destroyed by the idea that it’s not going to be possible.”
Stone advises audiences not to get distracted by the contemporary London setting.
“The play that I’m writing is for the theatre I’m putting it on in,” he says. “The theatre happens to be in London in 2016.”
He adds: “This particular myth of the woman who can’t, surrounded by women who can, is happening everywhere in the world at all times.”
Although Yerma is billed as a tragedy, Piper says that she was drawn to the humour in Stone’s script.
“I was glad when you told me in an email it was going to be a crack,” she tells Stone.
“Identification with characters happens through comedy,” he responds.
“That’s how you make friends – one you’ve just met a new colleague and you go to the pub, the moment where you ensure a bond is when you start telling jokes.”
“People at the end of their rope are usually quite entertaining,” Piper adds. “It’s hell for them, but it’s always great for the person who’s witnessing it. That’s just life.”
Piper’s previous theatre work in London includes Great Britain and The Effect, both at the National Theatre, Reasons To Be Pretty, at the Almeida, and Treats at the Garrick.
She found initial fame as a teenage pop singer, scoring two number one hits in 1998, before her acting career took off when she was cast as Rose in Doctor Who.
Her other TV credits include The Ruby in the Smoke, Secret Diary of a Call Girl, Mansfield Park and Penny Dreadful.
‘It’s going to be short’
Piper says rehearsals for Yerma are like nothing she’s experienced. “I feel like we’re making something that is very grounded in its concept, but feels very filmic in its energy,” she says.
“It will be an unusual piece of theatre just by definition of how it will be staged,” she adds, without elaborating for fear of spoilers.
But she does reveal the play is straight-through with no interval.
“It’s going to be sharp – ‘in-out, let’s have a beer,'” she laughs.
“People care about that when they go to the theatre. It’s going to be impactful, and it’s going to be short.”
She pauses and looks across at Stone. “And it’s going to be funny.”
Yerma is at the Young Vic, London, 28 July – 24 September