Bernarda Alba

Michael John LaChiusa, based on the play The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico García Lorca
Triptic
Union Theatre, Southwark
(2011)

Bernarda Alba, Michael John LaChiusa’s musicalisation of Federico García Lorca’s great 1936 play, had a short run Off-Broadway in 2006 where it opened to mixed reviews. The musical now receives its professional UK premiere by the enterprising Triptic at the Union Theatre. Whatever problems with the piece were identified in the New York production have apparently been ironed out by director Katherine Hare and her collaborators, for this is a stunning staging that grips, involves and moves from beginning to end.

British productions of Lorca’s work have sometimes been criticised as either tepid or overcooked, but Hare’s production is perfectly pitched. And the playwright’s tragic, poetic melodrama about a tyrannical matriarch maintaining a stranglehold over her five daughters in a small village in Southern Spain proves to be an ideal candidate for musicalisation.

Playing out on a sparse white-walled set complete with significant crucifix, Hare’s fluid, well-paced production - 90 minutes without an interval - sustains an intoxicating hothouse atmosphere of repressed passion that builds and builds until the inevitable explosion of tensions at the end. Although the lyrics tend just occasionally towards the prosaic, LaChiusa’s rich score is, overall, a thing of beauty. The women’s longings, fears, dreams and frustrations spill out in folk-song and flamenco-inspired arias and laments that keep us attuned to their feelings at all times. The chamber intensity of the music (brilliantly orchestrated and conducted by Leigh Thompson) is complemented by excellent, fierce choreography by Racky Plews and a beautiful lighting design by Sherry Coenen that expertly enhances the piece’s dynamic shifts between naturalism and expressionism.

There is also fine work from the cast across the board. Amelia Adams-Pearce gives a vibrant account of the rebellious Adela, whose dalliance with the fiancé of her half-sister Angustias (a compellingly tortured Sophie Jugé) brings the tragedy to a head. Rebecca Trehearn’s Materio shifts unsettlingly from dull-eyed disappointment to fierce jealous rage, while, as Bernarda’s senile mother, Buster Skeggs flits about in a bridal veil, nursing an imaginary baby, a vivid portent of the sisters’ potential fate. Essaying vivid individual characterisations, the actresses also work brilliantly together as an ensemble, transforming from baying mob to sensual chorus as required.

At the centre, of course, is Beverley Klein’s Bernarda, and Klein rivets the attention with a superbly chilling (and superbly sung) portrait of a blinkered, cruel, status-obsessed woman who believes that “a disobedient daughter stops being a daughter and becomes an enemy.” The ferocity with which she turns on her housekeeper, Poncia (Ellen O’Grady in a shrewd, memorable performance), when the latter dares to question her conduct, is especially alarming to witness.

And yet the feminism of Lorca’s vision has seldom resounded more clearly than it does in LaChiusa’s adaptation. For it’s hard not to see Klein’s Bernarda as, ultimately, a product of the society that spawned her, a patriarchal culture that pits women against each other, dividing them into virgins or whores, and whose pernicious ideology she has all too thoroughly imbibed. That insight into the way tyranny breeds tyranny is just one of many offered in a hugely entertaining evening that’s not to be missed.

Alex Ramon