Wednesday 29 November 2023

Theatre review: The House of Bernarda Alba

The National Theatre's biggest stages are currently giving a lot of actresses work, although neither of the titular roles are exactly feminist icons: If anything the Grand High Witch is a sweetheart compared to the matriarch of The House of Bernarda Alba. For Rebecca Frecknall's first show at the National, designer Merle Hensel supplies one of the multilevel buildings that fit so well on the Lyttelton stage, and while the script and costumes keep things in the rural 1930s Spain of the original, the pale green institutional set of little rooms piled on top of each other is a bit too on-the-nose, but an effective metaphor for the prison Bernarda (Harriet Walter) has created for herself and her family: Recently widowed for the second time, she declares that she and her five daughters will observe eight years of mourning for her husband, never to leave the grounds of the house without her permission.

The daughters must spend the eight years stitching fabrics for their dowries, a task straight out of the Ironic Punishment Division as the eldest are already in their thirties and, the position of women being what it is, they're unlikely to get many offers once they're allowed back out into the world.

The exception is the oldest, from Bernarda's first marriage, Angustias (Rosalind Eleazar,) who's due to get married to the village's most eligible bachelor. The proposal just so happened to come after her late stepfather left her everything in his will, a development that not only leaves his four biological daughters with nothing, but is an insult to Bernarda as it tacitly acknowledges the (not-very-consensual-sounding) affair he'd been having with Angustias for decades. Meanwhile the new fiancé may be marrying the oldest daughter for her money, but is clearly more interested in the youngest, Adela (Isis Hainsworth.)

Alice Birch's version takes Federico García Lorca's intense, stifling tragedy and gives it a sense of quite how much is going on in that mausoleum of a house. Helped by the semi-transparent walls, scenes can play out across each other, adding speed and energy, while Frecknall's production always seems to have some little detail going on as well as the main scene, whether it's Bernarda towering over events or her 80-year-old mother with dementia (Eileen Nicholas) escaping from her room. The play opens with the very busy funeral scene where Bernarda has allowed - much to her own disgust - the locals into the house to pay their respects, but as the focus narrows we quickly get a feel for the women's personalities, including the contrast of Pearl Chanda's beautifully sardonic Magdalena, with Eliot Salt's Amelia, who keeps up a bright and breezy exterior as if that'll make it true.

It's interesting to see this play so soon after Ghosts - not only do they share an anger at religious hypocrisy in general, but they also both see the widow of a shameless philanderer heaping extravagant posthumous honours on him, so that in the official record and public opinion, everything remains respectable. Walter's Bernarda herself feels less of a dominant figure in her own play: She's not so much malevolent as she in monolithic, ruling the house with an iron fist because this is the society she's always lived in and she can't imagine anything outside of it. Even her abuse of disabled daughter Martirio (Lizzie Annis) doesn't feel like outright cruelty so much as a robotic response, punishing her in the vicious ways she's always been told women deserve to be punished.

If this version of Bernarda has a major, conscious sin it's snobbery, and it's what's narrowed her daughters' horizons even before their father's death: She despises everyone else in the village where she's the richest resident, but it's made clear she could easily have moved elsewhere. She'd rather be a big fish in a small pond that she hates, than be on a lower social rung in a better place. It also means she's sabotaged genuine opportunities for her daughters to have happy marriages, because none of the available men are up to her personal standards.

The building tragedy is seen clearly by housekeeper Poncia (Thusitha Jayasundera,) the house's resident voice of both reason and warmth, but again she's too far below her station for Bernarda to take any notice of her, despite forty years of service. I think this is the third House of Bernarda Alba I've seen, and although essentially covering the same themes it's interesting to have it build up in my experience as one of those plays that can be seen in subtly but distinctly different ways, particularly with regard to the title character and her motivations. I certainly found a lot to like in Frecknall's interpretation; Jan was less convinced, although he did say that after we'd discussed everything going on in the play he'd started to think he liked it more than he originally thought.

The House of Bernarda Alba by Alice Birch after Federico García Lorca is booking until the 6th of January at the National Theatre's Lyttelton.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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