The House of Bernarda Alba

Federico Garcia Lorca, translated by Jo Clifford
Royal Exchange Theatre and Graeae Theatre Company
Royal Exchange Theatre

Kathryn Hunter and Temesgen Zeleke Credit: Jonathan Keenan
Hermon Berhane Credit: Jonathan Keenan
Alison Halstead Credit: Jonathan Keenan

The Royal Exchange has teamed up with the deaf and disabled actors of Graeae in an adaptation of Lorca that embraces the different abilities and body shapes of the people on stage, incorporating signing and audio description into the script rather than bolting them on afterwards.

This is a bold experiment on the main stage of one of the country's leading theatres; while it can't be said to be a great success, the concept is sound and could be developed in more interesting ways in the future.

On the plus side, we are spoiled by a third visit to Manchester in less than two years of Kathryn Hunter, here giving as intense and compelling a performance as ever in the title role. The play begins as Bernarda Alba mourns the loss of her husband with her five daughters, imposing on them all a mourning period of eight years.

Her eldest daughter from a previous marriage, Angustias (Nadia Nadarajah), has been left a large sum of money by her stepfather and has attracted the attentions of Pepe el Romano whom she wishes to marry. However her sisters are jealous of her inheritance from their biological father and of her handome fiancé, and the harmony of the household under Bernarda's strict rule starts to fracture.

This was Lorca's last play before his murder in Spain in 1936 and has the potential to be an intense family drama, but Jenny Sealey's production never really finds its feet and is, overall, rather flat. Other than Hunter, the performances can at times be lifeless and mechanical, although each gets a moment to shine, which makes the whole thing a slow trudge rather than a gripping thriller.

The adaptation doesn't help as the constant repetition isn't made to sound natural and so kills the pace. When the non-vocal actors are delivering their lines, their words come through the surtitle monitors and through signing, but are often echoed by the person to whom they are speaking as well but with a questioning tone, which even Hunter struggles to deliver convincingly. I'm sure there is a good way to achieve this right from the script stage, but this just looks like a last-minute fudge.

There are some technical issues that aren't solved satisfactorily, such as the fact that signing is more directional than sound—a problem when performing in-the-round—and subtitles that are often not synchronised properly with the dialogue and sometimes don't even reflect what is being said that closely.

The pace will pick up and the technical issues will improve and this will perhaps pick up the tension, but at the moment the various problems and perhaps a bit of under-rehearsal make this relatively short play seem much longer.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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