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The House of Bernarda Alba

Federico García Lorca, translated by Auriol Smith and Rebecca Morahan
Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
(2003)

The Orange Tree has commissioned a new translation of this Spanish classic from Auriol Smith and Rebecca Morahan and it is a great success. The spare, often poetic language manages to catch both the direct story of the repression of five daughters by their mother and also the allegorical, heavily symbol-laden prefiguring of the worst excesses of the Spanish Civil War.

There is a great feel for location, as the bright light supplied by John Harris is supplemented by Julie Nelson's depressing black costumes of mourning and simple white-tiled set surrounded by lace tablecloths. You are very much aware that you are in the steamily hot centre of Spain although it comes as a surprise that this play is set not in the middle of the 19th century but 1936 so old fashion are the characters' ways.

Bernarda Alba is a terrifying matriarch with "a tongue like a knife". She is played with fearsome vigour by Lynn Farleigh. The play commences with the death of her husband and her announcement that her five daughters are to commence eight years of mourning, during which they will be unable even to leave the house, let alone meet a man or marry.

While Bernarda still believes that she has absolute control, her daughters have other views and even her much put upon housekeeper, Poncia (played with great wit by Rowena Coope), tries without any success to enlighten her.

Once the eldest daughter, the only one with any dowry, Angustias (Paula Stockbridge), finds herself courted by the much younger Pepé el Romano, repressed passions cannot be held in place.

As well as their oldest sister, Martirio and Adela, the two most spirited of the daughters, have a desire for this young man, the most handsome in the town. It is inevitable that this will lead to despair and tragedy and the performances of Leah Muller and Aimee Cowan respectively are extremely strong as they begin to break away from their shackles.

This sexual madness is also well parodied in the actions of their senile grandmother, Sheila Burrell wonderfully producing one of her mad old biddies to order.

This is an excellent production of a play that would be poignant even if its playwright had not been murdered by Nationalists only two months after he completed writing it. In that context, the struggle of the daughters against their iron-fisted mother takes on even greater meaning.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher