mon 04/03/2024

The House of Bernarda Alba, Lyttelton Theatre review - dazzling darkness | reviews, news & interviews

The House of Bernarda Alba, Lyttelton Theatre review - dazzling darkness

The House of Bernarda Alba, Lyttelton Theatre review - dazzling darkness

Harriet Walter is a toweringly monstrous matriarch in Lorca’s tale of cruelty and repression

Harriet Walter in 'The House of Bernarda Alba'Marc Brenner

Rebecca Frecknall opened 2023 with a youthful, visceral, and brutal Streetcar Named Desire at the Almeida; she ends it with another startlingly vigorous adaptation, again of a play in which women are abused by men both physically and psychologically.

Meanwhile, Cabaret, her West End revival of which is now entering its third year and is also headed for Broadway, is set in Nazi Germany. Frecknall is becoming a supreme exponent of dazzling darkness. 

Ultimately, her National Theatre debut with The House of Bernarda Alba doesn’t hit the solar plexus in the same way as Streetcar, perhaps because Frecknall has a slight tendency towards over-elaboration that can sometimes offset emotion; equally, there is such an inevitability about the tragedy that ends Lorca’s play, founded on an endless cycle of cruelty and repression, that the audience may become as inured to it as some of the characters. 

That’s not to say that it isn’t riveting. It’s terrifically conceived and staged, Alice Birch’s excellent adaptation adds new layers to the play’s complexity, and Lorca’s world of emotional suffocation, sexual repression and parental abuse is richly evoked by a fine, all-female cast, led by a formidable Harriet Walter as the monstrous matriarch. Not surprisingly, Frecknall and designer Merle Hensel have eschewed a conventional rendition of 1930s rural Spain with something distinctly modern: a transparent, three-storey house, which appears to be made of turquoise Perspex or some such, complete with bedrooms for all the characters, dining room and kitchen, a staircase. The cutaway effect makes one think of a doll’s house; more exactly, it’s a women’s prison, with Bernarda as the warden. 

It opens with the funeral of Bernarda’s husband, which offers his widow just another excuse for control, as she declares eight years of mourning – offering embroidery as the only exercise for her five daughters. She even boasts of having chains for all of them, has literally locked up her own mother upstairs, and barks lines like “I ought to be haunting your dreams” worthy of a psychotic prison guard or drill sergeant. 

Bernarda is a creature of her religious, deeply chauvinist society, a woman who has accepted the blueprint for her life so completely that she believes that wives shouldn’t speak unless spoken to, and certainly shouldn’t ask questions of their husbands' disinterest and philandering; when a young woman in the village, who gave birth out of wedlock, is discovered to have killed her baby in fearful desperation, Bernarda leads the chants for her death. Birch adds another chilling dimension to her: the enabler. Bernarda’s stepdaughter, and oldest of the five, Angustias (Rosalind Eleazar), reveals that she was abused by her father for years. Of course, Bernarda, a woman who famously has eyes on everything inside these walls, knows nothing about that. (Pictured above: Eliot Salt, Isis Hainsworth and Rosalind Eleazar

As played by Walter, she’s a quite terrifying figure: tall, thin, her hair lacquered stiffly above her head, barking orders, dispensing snobbish insults, mercilessly scalding a daughter’s hand when she has stepped out of line. Some may make comparisons between Bernarda and Walter’s fabulous turn as another awful mother, Lady Caroline Collingwood in Succession, but these characters’ malign influence couldn’t be more differently sourced: Caroline’s comes from a wholly selfish lack of care; in her twisted way, Bernarda pays far too much attention. Bernarda has more in common with the Succession’s patriarch, Logan Roy. “A daughter who disobeys is no longer a daughter,” she riles, “she becomes an enemy.”

But could there be a glimmer of a gentler motive behind her actions? By denying her daughters the chance of marriage, Bernarda believes she is saving them. “What does freedom mean for a woman in this village,” she asks. This might explain her shocking wail of grief, at this production's climax, which is not in the original text.

In any case, Angustias has now inherited so much money that not even Bernarda can withhold the advances of the town’s most eligible bachelor, Pepe El Romano. While he wants Angustias for her money, the cad is already having an affair with the youngest, Adela (Isis Hainsworth). Martirio (Lizzie Annis), herself in love with him, knows of the affair and jealously tries to end it. The lothario’s careless foray into this hotbed of sexual repression sows the seeds of discord and disaster.While Pepe doesn’t appear in Lorca’s play, nor does any man, Frecknall introduces his presence through abstract means. At the play’s opening, as the women are scattered throughout the house in silhouette, James McHugh’s Pepe moves balletically across the stage; on another occasion, he dances unseen through the house, passing each woman in turn; more tangibly, he caresses Adela from behind the fence. It’s a cute approach, which conveys both the source of the sisters’ romantic aspirations, and the predatory nature of the men from whom their mother is trying to protect them. 

The busy staging, with actors moving constantly around the house (a large space to keep your eyes on) and multiple, overlapping conversations, is such that it takes a while to get to grips with the characters. Once the focus settles, however, it becomes engrossing, and the design itself comes into play in creating what one of the servants refers to as “a storm in every room”. In fact, the servants are the shrewdest people in the house, particularly the mischievous, funny and wise Poncia, very enjoyably played by Thusitha Jayasundera (pictured above, with Eleazar and Walter).

Of the sisters, Hainsworth gives Adele a combustible passion that at times competes well with Walter’s stony control, and Lizzie Annis, who was the stand-out performer in last year’s The Glass Menagerie (which is saying something, given it starred Amy Adams), lends Martirio a scary combination of vulnerability and spleen. 


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