The House of Bernada Alba

Two superb hours of almost claustrophobic familiarity, set in the hidden world of spanish women pre-civil war

Venue: York Theatre Royal
Run: 24th-26th November 2011
Directed by: Sue Colverd
Rating: ****

Performed on the York Theatre Royal’s more intimate second stage, ‘The Studio’, Federico Garcia Lorca’s final play, ‘The House of Bernarda Alba’ is two hours of almost claustrophobic familiarity set in the hidden world of spanish women pre-civil war.

Governed by Jude Emmet (Bernarda Alba), the household as the backdrop of the play is set by only four chairs of dark wood and wicker and a tiled floor, all for the first half under a modern blue and pink lit tent canopy. Whilst this last item was almost certainly not contained within Lorca’s imagining as he wrote his final play, this added touch by Corin Hayes (Lighting design) and Corinne Hockley (Set & Costume design), combined with Kate Littlewood’s new translation, injected the performance with new vigour and brought a touch of the 21st Century to a play that is otherwise a stark representation of the past and the life of women at that time.

Indeed, the play could not have more powerfully shown the small bonds of a group forced together by adversity. The mood flits between intimacy, meloncholia and desperate desire for the never-seen yet omnipresent Pepe el Romano, underpinned by the clever use of the actors themselves, both off stage and on, for sound effects, accompanied only by sparse, muffled cello lines and a tambourine.

Yet whilst all of this did add to the overall effect of the play, the calibre of the actors themselves was in no way smothered by it. Quite the opposite in fact, as the performances of Adela (Amy Enticknap) and Martirio (Kate Abraham) proved – at times almost unsettlingly realistic and frantic, especially during the final scene of Martirio’s betrayal, whilst simultaneously sisterly and loving. Although Saskia Portway (Angustias / Servant) did show a great versatility with her split performance, the ‘distance’ of Angustias’ character within the first half of the play was at times a little too much so, and so she at times looked uncomfortable and perhaps a little overwhelmed on stage. This aside, she and Kim Hicks (Poncia) gave solid performances throughout, holding their own both as supporting roles and when conversing alone with Jude Emmet.

The killing of an unmarried woman for bearing an illegitimate child is made more poignant and effective by the fact that the audience experience it as Adela does herself; from a distance. This removed point of view simultaneously highlighted the extreme and brutal irony of a society that does such things in the hope of remaining ‘proper’, and the harsh reality of a life for a woman in Lorca’s time. Whilst this was a strong message when written by Lorca, it could still be said to be applicable to society today; both with talk of such a lack of propriety within what David Cameron has dubbed ‘Broken Britain’ and examples of this brutality towards women still occurring in many parts of the world.

Overall, an at-times chilling and always intimate performance that definitely drew the audience in more and more as it progressed, although it may have had a feel of ‘starting on the wrong foot’ initially. On the 75th anniversary of Lorca’s death, his final play is still provoking thought and allowing new talent to express themselves as never before.

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