Really great theatre doesn’t come along quite so often as one might wish. But it’s currently on offer in rep at The National Theatre in this new English version of Federico García Lorca’s 1936 play by David Hare.
Even before the action begins you know there’s a treat in store because Vicki Mortimer’s very impressive and realistic courtyard set seems to ‘steam’ not only with the intense heat of the Spanish sun but also the oppressive atmosphere within the confines of the house itself.
In a sense, The House of Bernada Alba is a forerunner of reality TV – real life brought to the stage. Written in 1936, Lorca based the play on his observations of a neighbouring family controlled by a ‘tyrannical’ widow who deprived her unmarried daughters of any kind of free will, dehumanising them so they appeared to Lorca like ‘shadows’.
The play opens with the Alba household’s servants preparing for the funeral wake of Bernarda’s husband, and their conversation leaves us in no doubt as to Bernarda’s despotic, power-crazed character. When the family and neighbours return from the funeral, Bernarda prowls her house like a caged lion spitting orders and spewing venomous insults before getting rid of her neighbours (to their obvious relief) in double-quick time and reminding them on their way out that they ‘won’t be back’.
The funeral over with, the household returns to the meaningless, frustrating and regimented captivity of daily life. The daughters swelter in the sexually repressive atmosphere created by Bernarda to avoid humiliation and dishonour being brought on the family name through sexual promiscuity. In an illuminating and unnerving scene, we see the inhumanity of Spanish society’s treatment of women in the 1930s when Bernarda eagerly joins in the communal torture of a young unmarried mother in the village.
The eldest daughter, Angustias (commendably played by Sandy McDade), has inherited a considerable sum from her father’s will, and even though she is somewhat past her marital ‘sell-by’ date at 39, her financial endowment attracts the attentions of a handsome and sought-after young local ‘stallion’, suitably named Pepe el Romano.
Bernarda allows formal courtship between Pepe and Angustias through a nightly ritual where Pepe can talk to Angustias - but securely separated by the bars of her bedroom window to preserve the family honour. However, unknown to Angustias and the matriarch, when Pepe’s finished courting Angustias each evening, he slopes off to make love to the youngest and most vivacious daughter, Adela. Of course, it’s a recipe for disaster and only a matter of time before the volcano explodes with devastating consequences.
Outstanding acting abounds in Howard Davies’s well-honed and electrifying production. Penelope Wilton is quite simply brilliant in the lead role as Bernarda. She strides majestically around her totalitarian domain, sneering with contempt in everyone’s direction and never failing to resort to violence when necessary to ‘beat her daughters into submission’. And she totally ignores the pleas of her housekeeper, Poncia (excellently played by Deborah Findlay), to treat her daughters more liberally.
When acting is of such a uniformly high standard it’s not easy (or even fair) to single-out individual performances. But of the supporting cast, particular note must go to Sally Hawkins as Adela who ‘owned the stage’ at several points in the play, and proved a worthy and highly-strung ‘revolutionary’ willing to give up everything to secure an identity and live life on her own terms.
Gripping and totally engrossing, The House of Bernada Alaba is a superb production of a masterpiece – truly a ‘must see’.
Production photos by Catherine Ashmore
What other critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "It grips, shocks and moves in Howard Davies's powerfully acted production." ADAM SCOTT for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Lorca's poetry remains tantalisingly subtextual, resonating in the mind. His realism, meanwhile, is served impeccably by a raft of startling performances." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Fine new production." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "One of the miracles of Howard Davies's marvellous new production...is that it often proves wonderfully funny." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "excellent production." ALASTAIR MACAULAY for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "Howard Davies gives the play little pulse. Penelope Wilton, as the fierce matriarch Bernarda Alba, does all she can to add edge and dynamic bite.."