The Shape of Things last year, but The House of Bernarda Alba, the classic of violently repressed sexuality, fits the bill well enough. Bijan Sheibani has moved the action of Lorca's play to a remote part of Iran, possibly in the present day - in any case we see the maid vacuuming early on, so we know it can't be too far in the past. I know no more about Muslim mourning rituals than I do about the original's Catholic ones, but for me at least this contemporary setting worked well enough, and makes the play a reminder that oppression of women isn't exclusively a thing of the past. Bernarda Alba (most of the other characters have had their names changed to something more suitably Iranian but the matriarch's stays the same) has just buried her second husband, and commands her household of five daughters to observe 8 years of mourning which will see them imprisoned in their own home. The only hope of escape is a suitable marriage (and wealthy landowner Bernarda's definition of "suitable" is cripplingly narrow in their small, mostly-poor village.) Oldest daughter by her first husband, Asieh (Pandora Colin) has her own fortune, which has caught the eye of an eligible young local. But everyone except the matriarch can see his real interest is in youngest, prettiest daughter Adela (Hara Yannas.) The hunchbacked Elmira (Amanda Hale) is also hopelessly in love with him, and if she can't have him she'll try and make sure nobody does.
Shohreh Aghdashloo's Bernarda Alba is very much a diva (Aghdashloo's curtain call gave us an inkling where that interpretation of the role might have come from) and insufferable snob, whose mistreatment of her daughters comes as much from ignoring problems in the hope they'll go away as from any actual malice. A lot of this change of tone comes from Emily Mann's adaptation of the play which shortens it significantly to just over 90 minutes without interval. This makes for a very streamlined domestic tragedy which Sheibani's production imbues with a quiet, steady power. One major cut from the original involves the dead father who in this version we learn virtually nothing about. I don't think the omission makes it a weaker play, but it undoubtedly makes it a different, more single-minded one. Although during the play I was expecting this dark revelation that didn't come, it must not have bothered me too much by the end because afterwards I didn't remember the missing plot line until I was talking to Andy (whose own reaction to the show was fairly muted) and remembered the whole other element he hadn't seen in Mann's version.
I think this edit is a real factor in making the title character slightly less of a gorgon. There's still a special kind of sadism in a woman who insists her daughters' only suitable employment is stitching their dowries, when they're painfully aware of how unlikely it is they'll ever need them. But the missing information about the man in whose name they've been imprisoned means one less dose of salt rubbed into their wounds. One of theatre's great monsters remains monstrous, if slightly less so, and I'm not sure if I don't prefer it this way: Though undeniably powerful, I found the National's production a few years back almost unbearably oppressive (and would have been in danger of punching its Bernarda, Penelope Wilton, if I'd seen her in the street straight afterwards.) Here the play remains powerful and relevant but has a particularly focused, and I thought successful, approach applied to it.
The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico García Lorca in a version by Emily Mann is booking until the 10th of March at the Almeida Theatre.
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight through.