Neil Dowden on the South Bank
4 December 2023
The new production at the National Theatre of The House of Bernarda Alba is billed as being “by Alice Birch after Federico García Lorca”. And although it is not such a free (or revelatory) adaptation as Simon Stone’s Yerma at the Young Vic in 2017, it certainly sheds interesting new light on this classic play.
Rosalind Eleazar, Thusitha Jayasundera and Harriet Walter.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
Completed in 1936 just two months before the progressive Lorca was assassinated by General Franco’s fascist forces at the start of the Spanish Civil War, it is often seen as an allegory of the totalitarian regime that would take over three years later. The repression of sexuality in the drama may also reflect Lorca’s own experiences as a gay man (while homophobia may have been a contributory reason for his murder). Though it’s an all-female household, there’s no doubt we are in a patriarchal society, with matriarch Bernarda Alba colluding in the subjugation. This modern-feeling version highlights the psychological plight of the women trapped in the eponymous house.
If ever a house was not a home, this is it. Bernarda has maintained an iron grip on her five unmarried adult daughters, preventing them from forming relationships outside her inherited family residence, which more resembles a convent or penitentiary. After the death of her second husband, she enforces an uber-traditional eight-year period of mourning. Reputation is all, and she brooks no dissent to her military-like rule: “A daughter who disobeys is no longer a daughter. She becomes her enemy – and that is her choice.”
But rebellion is in the air. Her oldest daughter Angustias (now 39) has received a marriage offer from the romantic chancer Pepe el Romano – no doubt attracted by her large dowry bequeathed by her father, Bernarda’s first husband, which is much more than her envious half-sisters have. Meanwhile the youngest Adela (only 20) embarks on a passionate affair with Pepe, while Martirio also yearns for him in a hothouse of sexual frustration. The tension builds as the sibling rivalry leads to an inevitable showdown under Bernarda’s vigilant eye.
Isis Hainsworth as Adela.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
Rebecca Frecknall’s expressionist production makes a strong start with Bernarda patrolling downstage looking sternly out towards the audience like a prison warder, in front of her imposing three-storeyed mansion, which is cut open like a doll’s house so that we can see everything that goes on inside each room. In a sense, Merle Hensel’s set is the star of the show. A central staircase leads to individual glass-walled bedrooms (or cells) for each woman, with crucifixes above the beds. In the main downstairs living room a rifle hangs on the wall – just waiting to be grabbed – while the yard outside is enclosed by a spiked wrought-iron gate at both ends.
The design is impressive to look at, but it does tend to distance us from the characters who are mostly speaking in what is essentially a glass box. The opening funeral wake scene is also very stylized, with the black-clad guests initially silhouetted before we see them clearly, while their gossiping speech overlaps so that it is hard to focus on what is being said by whom. Moreover, at times there is a lot of business going on simultaneously in different parts of the house which is a bit of a distraction. But things do settle down later.
We see Bernarda’s octogenarian mother María Josefa locked up in her room and forcibly injected, while elsewhere Angustias masturbates on her bed, Adela standing at the window in her underwear tries to spot Pepe outside, with Martirio spying and eavesdropping on her, in a claustrophobic set-up that mixes surveillance with voyeurism. Bernarda’s cruelty is shown in shocking moments such as her scrubbing make-up off Angustias’s face and shoving Martirio’s hand into boiling water as punishment for hiding Pepe’s photograph in her room.
In a horrifying scene that Lorca reports but is here turned into a phantasmagoric tableau (via Adela’s overheated imagination as she fears for her own future safety) we see a village lynch mob pursuing a young woman who has just killed a baby born out of wedlock. The biggest innovation is to present the normally offstage Pepe in speechless choreographed sequences at various points in the production, as well as in erotic couplings with Adela through the gates. This does dilute the all-female cooped-up effect but again makes physical the women’s suppressed feelings.
Set by Merle Hensel.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
Birch’s dialogue is refreshingly colloquial and peppy – as well as featuring flashes of humour amidst the inexorable tragedy – though the proliferation of the f-word (including by Bernarda herself) seems totally out of sync with the ultra-conservative, religious-inspired regime that is in force. But because the sense of social context is not very strong – it may be set in 1930s rural Andalusia but it doesn’t feel like it – one sometimes wonders why the women are virtually imprisoned anyway. This version is a very different approach from David Hare’s staged at the National Theatre in 2005, which was more overtly political. Birch (who has had major screen success with her contribution to Succession and her adaptation of Normal People) is an enterprising playwright influenced by Martin Crimp, both known for their collaborations with Katie Mitchell.
The latter’s influence can perhaps be seen in this staging by Frecknall (herself on a roll with award-winning productions like Cabaret and A Streetcar Named Desire) which is at once compelling and disorientating. This is supported by the dramatic lighting effects of Lee Curran, which range from the discomforting greenish hue of the house to a lurid red for scenes of passion, Isobel Waller-Bridge’s chillingly discordant music, and the ambient sound of Peter Rice including church bells chiming and barking dogs.
The ensemble cast are excellent. Harriet Walter’s ramrod-straight back and haughtily statuesque demeanour perfectly express Bernarda’s inflexible stance and authoritarian outlook, as a woman determined to inflict on her daughters the puritanical discipline which she presumably had to endure in her own upbringing in order to survive abusive men. Isis Hainsworth (who played Juliet in Frecknall’s production of Romeo and Juliet at the Almeida in the summer) is a convincingly free-spirited and impulsive Adela who will not accept being shut down. Rosalind Eleazar conveys well Angustias’s long-term suffering as well as her last hope for escape, while Lizzie Annis gives the disabled Martirio a real pathos and increasing desperation that leads to betrayal.
Eileen Nicholas, dressed in a ghostly white bridal dress like Miss Havisham, makes a powerful impact as María Josefa whose dementia doesn’t stop her from climbing out her bedroom window. Thusitha Jayasundera also impresses as the pragmatic servant Poncia who knows how far she can go with her mistress. And James McHugh lends Pepe el Romano a virile sensuality as the local Lothario who is forced to beat a hasty retreat when confronted by Bernarda defending her fortress.