“THERE COULD NOT BE SUCH DEVOTED SISTERS”
Review of “The House of Bernarda Alba”
A seething Mediterranean heat imbues the whole feel of this story of a tyrannical Empress of a mother, dominating and suppressing her daughters. Staged by the Stoke Repertory Theatre Players, this production is something of a triumph.
Written by the controversial and revolutionary writer Federico Garcia Lorca during the Spanish Civil War, the author was executed by the fascist regime of General Franco, just 8 weeks after completing “The House of Bernarda Alba” in 1936.
Lorca’s play is a taut and catholic production, to be read on many levels, which delve into not only the undercurrents of the family into whose lives we find ourselves privy, but opening out onto the themes and repression of sexuality, religion, tradition, and the brutal regime at the time. It could also be argued that Lorca was expressing his own repression and frustration as an openly gay man during such an authoritarian era.
Dominated by a vile dictator of a mother and featuring a wholly female cast, the play has echoes in the recent award winning novel ‘The Power” by Naomi Alderman, (ISBN: 9780670919987). Alderman’s book, devoted to the issues of a role reversal in a world where women have all the physical strength and dominant role in society, has become the first science fiction novel to scoop the Baileys Prize for women’s fiction. This play mentions and features male characters, particularly the dead father who has just been buried, and a very handsome young farmer whom the sisters are either in love with or obsessing over, but they are never seen.
The actors here have a solid conviction in the parts they are playing with a species of perfection. Bernarda is that hectoring, domineering Spanish Donna and the daughters are those frustrated, exploding young women desperate to break free. The mourners are genuinely believable Catholic ladies strictly “Showing Respect”, swarming in like cold black crows.
This is character playing of an extremely high order, from a very strong company, whose names I shall list at the end of the review, and I have not seen such strong portrayals since the triumphant “At The Mountain Top” at the New Vic last year about Dr Martin Luther King. This is investment in performance which plays high dividends. The observation of body language is particularly spot on, from the arrogant swagger of Donna Alba to the hunched shoulders and smouldering resentment of her children, this was simply perfect.
This is not a happy story, and the cast will forgive me in saying that none of the characters are exactly loveable! Set in Andalucía in southern Spain, a tiny village caught in the blistering heat of a merciless summer, the funeral of Don Alba has just taken place. His formidable widow and her five daughters are making their way back from church as the mourning bell sounds. Encased in black fortresses of dresses the women enter, showing deep catholic respect, and their mother, now gripping her kingdom with an iron fist, announces a period of mourning to last 8 years.
Bernarda suppresses her daughters utterly, but she also locks up her aged and sadly deranged mother, a tragic Miss Havisham figure who eventually makes a break for freedom in a tattered wedding dress, off to have legions of babies.
Sexual longings are barely restrained, and a desperate desire for sexual freedom. Darker levels are hinted at and themes of incest are in the air, and everyone seems to be hiding dark secrets. No-one seems innocent in this play, even if the delightful La Poncia says “Don’t worry, I’m the good bitch!” She is the true mother of the girls, nurse, confessor and protector of their secrets. Even though she has secrets of her own.
But revolt is seething below the surface and revolution due to break out. The eldest daughter, Angustias, daughter of their mother’s first husband, inherits most of their father’s money and is due to marry glamorous local catch Pepe “el Romano”, the most beautiful man in the district. But Pepe seems to want to have his cake and eat it, as he is conducting a seriously steamy affair with younger daughter Adela, and obsessed over by her sister Martirio who is seething with jealousy.
In the prison like atmosphere of their home, things are bound to go from bad to worse, and the conclusion of the story is tragic in the extreme. With their mother clinging triumphantly to her dignity and respectability despite the ensuing tragedy and collapse of all their hopes. This is a beautifully observed production. The three rooms of the family home are realised with a simple Spanish minimalism which strikes a highly authentic note, from the terrace at the rear of the house with its lovely dining table, to the sewing room. I particularly liked the subtle touches of a portrait of King Phillip of Spain on the wall in one room, and the pre Raphaelite painting of Hylas and the Nymphs in another. Very apt!
The lighting was just perfect, radiating a golden glow over the stage that suggested the balmy heat of Andalucía. Along with a formidable catholic crucifix and statues of the Madonna, this wove a true feeling of the location, the dust and the heat of a hot Spanish village.
This was an excellent production, and all I can say is that I am glad I caught it. This is a company to watch, they are going to do great things. Congratulations to Director Brian Rawlins and your team, this is a fine achievement.
Cast of “The House Bernarda Alba”
Servant: Gina Brian
Beggar: Cathy Smedley
La Poncia: Ann McArdle
Bernarda Alba: Jane Procter
Mourners: Ann Pope, Celia Richardson and Angela James
Girl Mourner: Charlotte James
Adela: Hollie Burnett
Martirio: Elena Fox
Magdalena: Nicola Chirnside
Angustias: Janie Smith
Amelia: Kerry Sirrell
Maria Josefa: Gill Plant
Prudencia: Christine Birks