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 The Theatreguide.London Review


The House of Bernarda Alba
Lyttelton Theatre Spring-Summer 2005

The very model of what a revival should be, this new National Theatre production presents a major play in all its strength while illuminating it in fresh ways.

Frederico Garcia Lorca's 1936 drama, here in a new version by David Hare, examines a family of women behind the closed doors of a house as repression, cabin fever, raging hormones and lifetimes of tensions and resentments act upon them.

Inevitably there are political overtones, about the role of women in Spanish society and religion, but Lorca's finest insights and strongest drama are psychological, and director Howard Davies and his admirable cast have wisely and sensitively focussed on them.

The title character is a widow with five adult daughters, big fish in a small village and literally fenced in by their social position and their obligations to tradition and social censure.  The eldest daughter is permitted the very limited release of a formal courtship with a younger man that everyone, including her, knows is just after her money. But that doesn't keep all her sisters from fantasizing about him and, ironically, becoming more jealous of each other than of the putative bride. Desire, repression, fear and resentment of social strictures all build to a tragic conclusion.

While previous productions have tended to stress the repression, as personified by the cold and life-denying mother, Howard Davies suffuses the play with the taste of life gone sour. Trapped in the airless house by the strictures of mourning, the women loll about in a heat-induced dishabille that takes on an unconsciously sexual tinge - a sense that is underlined when the mere sound of men's voices in the street makes conversation freeze or when we become aware that every one of them knows to the minute the times of the wooer's visits.

Also breaking with tradition, Penelope Wilton (in a wig that makes her look disconcertingly exactly like Margaret Tyzack) lets us see that Bernarda is not a desiccated ghost denying life to others because she has none herself, but a living, breathing, feeling woman desperately trying to meet the strictures of a repressive culture.

A perhaps exaggerated sense of how women in their position should behave - 'It doesn't matter what we feel, only what we let ourselves show' - forces her to impose and enforce impossible strictures on her daughters. But we see, in brief moments of unforced warmth with the girls or an unguarded bit of dancing to the radio, that this Bernarda is as trapped and crippled as they.

It is a performance of subtle insight and reality, as is that of Deborah Findlay as the servant-confidante-friend who sees all that is going on and cares enough to try to communicate some of it to her employer to whom denial is a way of life. 

Sandy McDade, playing the eldest daughter, is one of those actresses who can be beautiful or ugly as she chooses, and makes the braver choice to embody a woman rushing to settle for far less than the ideal because it is all that she'll ever be offered.

I saw an understudy, Kirsty Wood, as the youngest and most passionate daughter, and while the regular actress in the role might be as good, I cannot imagine her being better. (The last-minute replacement led to one of those lovely theatrical moments, as during the curtain calls the rest of the cast joined in a special round of applause for Wood's beautiful and in no way tentative performance.)

David Hare's adaptation only slips a few times, as when the daughters repeatedly turn away from each other with a grating 'Whatever,' and Vicki Mortimer's set, which at first seems a bit too elegant for the austere Albas, proves a wise choice as it contributes to the hothouse atmosphere.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - House of Bernarda Alba - National 2005