Review of The House of Bernarda Alba at Cervantes Theatre London

Mary Conlon, Pía Laborde, Candela Gómez and Joanna Kate Rodgers, in BERNARDA ALBA - Picture by Elena Molina
Mary Conlon, Pía Laborde, Candela Gómez and Joanna Kate Rodgers in BERNARDA ALBA – Picture by Elena Molina

A point which some fellow theatregoers made in an exit poll opinion of this production of The House of Bernarda Alba was how truly international this cast is, evident as they retain their natural accents. Although there are five sisters living under one roof under the tyrannical rule of Bernarda (Mary Conlon), the siblings speaking in different accents is not a production defect. For in this English translation of Federico García Lorca’s play, it is assumed every character is speaking in Spanish, even if the audience’s is hearing dialogue in the English language. Incidentally, there are opportunities to see the production in Spanish as well, and certain characters are played by different actors dependent on which language a particular performance is performed in.

This is rather like one of the early scenes in The Sound of Music, in which the von Trapp children reside in a strict and regimented environment. But here, there’s no equivalent of Maria to liven things up, and so the atmosphere remains oppressive, as though the sisters are walking on eggshells. Also, Bernarda Alba’s children are rather older than Captain von Trapp’s – the oldest, Angustias (Joanna Kate Rodgers), is 39 and the youngest, Adela (Maite Jáuregui), is 20.

That doesn’t stop Bernarda from treating her daughters as though they were still prepubescent. Poncia (Moir Leslie) tries hard to persuade Bernarda to moderate her temper but a terse, “You are my servant!” seems to settle the matter, albeit unsatisfactorily. A despot is a despot, and this one is no more or less uncompromisingly difficult than any other. Mary Conlon’s Bernarda is convincingly controlling, and in her behaviour much can be gleaned about the sort of society this family lives in. This isn’t The Waltons.

The funeral of Bernarda’s husband is ongoing at the start of the play, and I found the responses to grief intriguing to observe. One of the sisters throws herself into her work, vigorously sewing as though there were an urgent deadline (there isn’t one), whilst another is unable to do anything at all except weep. Bernarda’s mother, Maria Josefa (Gilly Daniels), provides a further dimension to proceedings. Okay, she comes across as senile, but there’s a powerful metaphor in her wanting to be free and not locked up like a cage-bird in some off-stage room.

The play, when first published, proved prophetic, coming just before decades of dictatorial rule in Spain under General Franco. Today, it is rather timely, given the furore in recent news reports about the mistreatment of women in the arts, in political circles, and other industries. This production supplies audiences with food for thought: repression of women need not come from patriarchy to have far-reaching and devastating consequences. It’s emotionally charged throughout, and mercifully only fleetingly crosses over into melodrama. The bright lighting, portraying sunny Spain, contrasted well with the dark and tense environment.

The increasing isolation the daughters are placed in by Bernarda is a striking and disturbing image. It’s relatable to almost anything involving being separated from others – the school pupil shunned by classmates, the talented employee who doesn’t quite fit in with colleagues for whatever reason, even (I grudgingly admit, given a tendency in some quarters to equate anything and everything to this) the result of a certain referendum. A thoughtful and poignant production from the Spanish Theatre Company.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

The STC continues its mission to present all of Lorca’s work with a new production of The House of Bernarda Alba, Lorca’s story of a family of women in 1930s Spain, dominated and repressed by the matriarch, Bernarda Alba.

In the subtitle of the play, Lorca describes it as “a drama of women in the villages of Spain”. The House of
Bernarda Alba was Lorca’s last play, completed on 19th June 1936, two months before his death during the Spanish Civil War; he was summarily executed by supporters of General Franco, in Granada. Born on 5th June 1898 in Fuente Vaqueros, Spain, Lorca is considered one of Spain’s greatest poets

The House of Bernarda Alba (La Casa de Bernarda Alba) will run at the Cervantes Theatre
Cervantes Theatre
Arch 26. Old Union Arches. 229 Union Street.
London. SE1 0LR
23rd October – 20th December 2017.

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