Federico García Lorca
Until 6 January 2024
Review by Colin Grant
In the Royal National Theatre’s production of Federico García Lorca’s last play, The House of Bernarda Alba (1936), the vexed women, primarily a mother and her five adult daughters, are on permanent display. Their home, revealed like a doll’s house with the front wall removed, is a lattice of three floors with open cell-like bedrooms bathed in a cold, clinical, peppermint green light, as if they were lab mice at an experimental medical facility.
Written two months before he was executed by fascist troops at the start of the Spanish civil war, the play is set contemporaneously in Andalusia in a house ruled over by the recently widowed Bernarda (played with a ramrod stillness and steeliness by Harriet Walter), mirroring the dynamics of the repressive state and its citizens.The unhappy house is both a prison and fortress. No one is getting in, especially not the village’s most desired man Pepe El Romano, (James McHugh), who exudes an erotically charged menace like a half-man, half-bull painted by Picasso , and, more importantly, no one is getting out.
This production, directed by Rebecca Frecknall and with a text adapted by Alice Birch, sacrifices some of the lyrical poetry of Lorca’s writing, introducing modern, muscular language to the mother and daughters’ unleashed frustrations laced with expletives. The caged daughters of Bernarda Alba do not sing; they trade in bitterness and resentment towards each other, made all the more combustible by their inability to escape the house. With no male head of household to protect them, Bernarda positions herself as a kind of stoical sentinel, and instructs her daughters that they will henceforth embark on eight years of mourning.
Lorca portrays the women as case studies of a dangerously dysfunctional society. A prideful snob, Bernarda considers the family an island of refinement and class in a sea of vulgarity and coarseness. How could she ever allow her prized daughters to form unions with the village’s despicable brutes?
But marriage, at least for the eldest daughter Angustias, seems possible, even desirable. Her sizable dowry has made her an attractive proposition for Pepe. They are engaged but Rosalind Eleazar ably transmits Angustias’s insecurity; she’s a tight ball of pain, making preparations for a marriage you suspect is a fantasy; it’ll never happen.
Given a chance Martirio (Lizzie Annis), a martyr of unrequited love would replace her sister as the object of Pepe’s affection in a heartbeat. Martirio is surly but she’s no match for Magdalena (Pearl Chanda) in her tetchiness. She slouches like a petulant teenager with an unending repertoire of answers for any criticism from her mother. Amelia (Eliot Salt), in direct contrast, is bouncy in her frivolity. The youngest sister, Adela (Isis Hainsworth) is pitch perfect in her vacant otherworldliness communing with the chicks; she’s a romancer and a dreamer who, framed by the window, stands in her underwear in the hope that Pepe will pass by and be aroused by her.
None of the sisters successfully contest the constraints imposed by their mother on their existence. They are drawn to the gates of their compound, a powerful metaphor for their imprisonment and lack of agency. They climb the gates and look longingly towards life in the village beyond but they do not climb over and make a bid for freedom.
The eerie soundscape, with Isobel Waller-Bridge’s droning, foreboding music, underscores the stark pathology that quickly evolves and metastasizes, taking over the culture and identity of the house. There’s a pervasive sense of dread and a threat of violence epitomized in the rifle that hangs expectantly on the wall of the living room.
In one of the play’s most explosive moments, an unmarried mother who has discarded her stillborn child is outed by villagers. She is hunted, captured and dragged to Bernardo Alba’s compound in a scene depicted in slow motion, like a moving tableau vivant. ‘Kill her,’ screams Bernarda ‘before the guards come.’ This command chimes with Lorca’s intention that the play would be produced ‘as a photographic document’’ with each scene a portrayal of ‘reality!’ ‘Pure realism!’
The dark tone of The House of Bernarda Alba is unremitting but leavened occasionally by two other members of the household: the grandmother (Eileen Nicholas) and the maid, Poncia. Thusitha Jayasunderan brings an amused intelligence to the role of the loyal Poncia as she offers unsolicited counsel to Bernarda.
A more opaque counsel can be heard from the mentally ill grandmother. She is a pitiful precursor of her granddaughters’ plight, roaming the house in a wedding dress in a fugue of delusion over her imagined forthcoming marriage. She speaks in the manner of a Shakespearean fool whose words might be mistaken for a kind of mania but are really an expression of a terrible vision of all their futures that will inevitably come to pass.
Lorca also invests the grandmother with his own prescient insights. He foresaw the coming fascistic tendencies that would sweep across the land. When the tragedy of a daughter’s suicide befalls the house, the wailing cannot stop. More years of mourning will follow and Bernada’s instruction for ‘Silence. Silence. Silence!’’ prefaces the fascist leader Franco’s suppression of dissent and the imposition of an omertà about the many killed and disappeared during the civil war.
This potent play, and its timely staging with the resurrection of far-right political regimes around the world, demonstrates Lorca’s empathic understanding of the fascistic mindset that led to his murder. The great outpouring of grief from the sisters at the end of the play anticipates the country’s mourning of Federico García Lorca, one of Spain’s finest poets who was killed at Ainadamar, the ‘ Fountain of Tears’.
Photos by Marc Brenner