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The House of Bernarda Alba

Federico Garcia Lorca in a new version by Sir David Hare
RNT Lyttelton
(2005)

Cherry Morris (Maria Josefa), Deborah Findlay (background) (Poncia) and Penelope Wilton (Bernarda Alba)

The National Theatre is certain to have yet another hit with Howard Davies' excellent revival of the play that Federico Garcia Lorca completed less than two months before his untimely death at the hands of right-wing supporters of Franco.

The House of Bernarda Alba combines an allegorical attack on the Fascism that was taking over Spain in 1936 with a searingly sad view of what can happen when passions are repressed under the guidance of a strong religion.

This new version by Sir David Hare is all shimmering sensuality in the massive hothouse of a room created by designer Vicki Mortimer and lighting designer Paule Constable.

It follows the lives of the five daughters of Penelope Wilton's monstrous Bernarda, as they desperately contemplate eight years of trapped mourning for their father and the consequent loss of any chance of love and sex.

Soon, despite the efforts of the friendly retainer Poncia, played with dry wit by Deborah Findlay, each of them sets her sights in differing ways on the unseen Pepe el Romano, practically the only marriageable man in town. This is unfortunate to say the least, since he is almost immediately betrothed to the gawky, vacuous oldest half-sister Angustias, played by Sandy McDade. There can be no doubting his motive, he is driven by a desire for money rather than a woman almost fifteen years his senior.

Sir David has made a great effort to examine the characters of the girls. He allows them opportunities to explain their motives at length, especially the two most passionately devoted to their dreams of life and love with Pepe.

Jo McInnes' hunch-backed martyr, the straight-talking Martirio, knows that she can never have her man but is determined that if she cannot then neither will her youngest sister, Adela. Sally Hawkins gives a lovely performance as the girl who is unable to hold back, even if her actions must bring disgrace to herself and the family.

The final fight between these two is physical as well as verbal. It can only end in tears or worse and by the close of this three-act, two interval, two-and-three quarter hours, the family and, by implication, the country will never be the same again.

At the same time as her daughters duel, the harsh Bernarda rules her house with a rod of oppression that is finally symbolically snapped by Adela. The matriarch's only ally but as much her opponent is paid companion Poncia with whom she shares an ambivalent relationship, based almost entirely on mistrust. This pairing allows Penelope Wilton, to share a couple of revealing moments with the calmly sardonic Deborah Findlay making much of the role of the omniscient servant.

There is also good support from Cherry Morris in a cameo as the mad but strong-willed octogenarian grandmother and Justine Mitchell playing the coolly cynical sister Magdalena.

The cast is superbly led by Miss Wilton who might well find herself up for some awards come the end of the year. She is entirely convincing as the frosty, unbending Iron Lady who chills every room that she enters but eventually shows enough compassion to draw sympathy for her otherwise evil character.

Howard Davies has created a gripping production that combines some poetic, modern language (only let down by the ubiquitously irritating bored "whatever") packed with metaphor; with a steadily building rhythm and some really strong performances.

It is very much to be recommended and pleasingly shows Sir David Hare right back on top form.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher