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The House of Bernarda Alba by Alice Birch – Lyttelton Theatre

The House of Bernarda Alba is divided. The most beautiful man in town, Pepe El Romano, has entreated the adoration of all the Alba sisters, and as is unsurprising with Lorca, it is only tragedy that is waiting for them.

Isis Hainsworth (Adela) and James McHugh (Pepe El Romano) in The House of Bernarda Alba at the National Theatre. Credit- Marc Brenner.
Isis Hainsworth (Adela) and James McHugh (Pepe El Romano) in The House of Bernarda Alba at the National Theatre. Credit- Marc Brenner.

This new treatment of Federico Garcia Lorca’s classic text takes us to a house darkened by the death of their father, looking at the long eight years of mourning that stands above them. Despite Bernarda Alba’s (Harriet Walter) insistence on an insular grief, the daughters of this decaying house look out of the windows as Pepe El Romano (James McHugh) approaches. Pepe is to marry Angustias (Rosalind Eleazor), and while it appears to be a financially motivated decision, it is the cause of much excitement. Unfortunately, all is not as it seems, Pepe is tempted away from his intended path and a decaying house becomes a broken one, torn by mistrust, deceit and betrayal.

There are two reasons to come and see this play. First is Harriet Walter in the titular role, and this is motivation enough. It is hard to tear your eyes away from her austere presence, saying little, and frequently offstage for long exchanges, her presence and absence are felt with equal weight. The brilliance of Walter is that in her stony stature lie the greatest of subtleties, who she is looking at, the turn of her neck and the slightest gesture change the temperature of the scene and it is delicious to watch.

Reason two is the design by Merle Hensel. Bernarda Alba’s house is divided, both narratively, and literally. The play takes place in a minimalist cross-section of the house with translucent walls. This both lays the family bare in the eyes of the audience, while also building tension, we see characters walking down the stairs about to discover something horrific, giving the audience a thrill of what is to come. There is something almost amusing in the unashamedness of Hensel’s design, all bedrooms have a cross on the wall, the main room has a gun centre stage. I can’t help but think that the design might be leaning into the Chekhovian elements of the play.

The play is quite funny, and this new treatment by Alice Birch brings a contemporary feel to the Spanish classic while remaining aloof and insular in content and setting. The humour, which is primarily a product of tension does not alleviate tension, instead it accentuates it. The play is distinctly Chekhovian, which is enjoyable, lending to the actors’ ability to hold dialogue and deliver layer upon layer of subtext.

4 stars

Review by Tom Carter

You bring such scandal to my house

In the domain of Bernarda Alba, a daughter who disobeys is no longer a daughter.

Forced to live under their mother’s tight grip as they mourn their father’s death, can five sisters survive when young Adela dares for passion and freedom?

Olivier Award-winner Harriet Walter (Succession) plays the formidable matriarch, guarding her reputation against the rising tide of her family’s desires in this pitch-black drama exploring the consequences of oppressing women.

The House of Bernarda Alba
by Alice Birch
after Federico García Lorca
a co-production with Playful Productions
Booking to 6 January 2024
https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

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