The House of Bernada Alba

Frederico Garcia Lorca

The Spanish Theatre Company

Cervantes Theatre

From 23 October 2017 to 09 December 2017

Review by Howard Loxton

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The tolling of church bells at the funeral of Bernada Alba’s second husband opens Lorca’s play about that proud woman and the five daughters she keeps under her tyrannical control.

Director Jorge de Juan uses such offstage sound very effectively in this direct and intense production. Real sound: bells, doors clanging shut, barking dogs and a horse wildly trying to break from its stall all contribute to a picture of confinement, suppression and bottled-up feelings. He effectively uses music too for a number of dialogue-less but emotional moments when action seems to stop to explore what the characters are feeling.

Lorca said that he intended this play as a photographic record of Spanish life. It was his last work, completed only weeks before he was murdered by nationalists in 1936, presenting a stark picture of life for women, restricted by class, income and a stern religious morality.

The eldest of Bernada Alba’s daughters, 39-year old Angustias (Joanna Kate Rodgers), child of her first husband and the only one with an inheritance, is expecting a proposal of marriage from handsome Pepe Romano, the only remotely eligible young man in their village. He is already having a secret affair with her youngest child, Adela (Maite Jáuregui), but, as their sister Martirio (Beth Smith) points out, men are not interested in looks but in the land and the cattle a bride brings.

Bernada, driven by her sense of superiority, image and reputation, would never allow her daughters to marry a common farmer, so the others are likely to stay single. What would marriage offer anyway? Bernada’s maid Poncia has no illusions. “Fifteen days after the wedding,” she says, “a man leaves the bed for the table, then the table for the tavern.”

Set designer Ángel Haro sets the action on a red-tiled floor and covers the vertical surfaces in intricately interwoven white paper emphasising the daughters’ confinement and the black mourning dress of the family and heightening the effect of the sudden appearance of Adela in a pretty dress and of grandmother Maria Josefa in her flower-decked bridal gown, the only colour allowed in Isabel de Moral’s costumes.

The Spanish Theatre Company fields a confident cast (some of whom can play in both languages). The demented old lady is touchingly played by Gilly Daniels (acclaimed for her role in this company’s Darwin’s Tortoise). There’s a strong performance from Moir Leslie as Poncia, the servant who, after so may years in the household, knows how to handle her mistress. Beth Smith as Martirio successfully suggests this daughter’s slight deformity, a realist who has no hope of romance but still with passionate feelings for a man like Pepe. This Angustias, after a lifetime of obedience, seems bemused by what is due to happen while young Adela flaunts her rebellion.

Mary Conlon as Bernada Alba presents an imperious and demanding authoritarian, devoid of compassion in her determination to keep up appearances. She runs a farm as well as a family, as sure of her judgement on horse breeding as firm in resolve that her daughters obey her. She locks up her own mother rather than risk neighbours see her eccentric behaviour, tells her daughters to keep their crying for when not even their sisters can see them. This isn’t a woman you’d cross, though you might try to get away with things. Lorca’s script is not without humour but no one risks laughing lest she should hear. Conlon makes her self-controlled as well as controlling.

The production has a strong sense of the heat of the summer and suppressed tension, as in the frantic treadling of one daughter at her sewing machine. More could be made of the contrasting artificial normality of the visit by outsider Prudencia but the frustrations are there, sometimes bubbling out, but dramatically building to a final tragic eruption.

Played in a translation by Carmen Zapata and Michael Dewell, this production is a reminder that Lorca was a poet as well as presenting his penetrating picture of a rigid, regulated society.

Note: English language performances are Thursday to Saturday until 2 December. Monday to Wednesday performances are in Spanish (with a partly different cast). 4 to 9 December all performances in Spanish.