The House of Bernarda Alba

The Orange Tree Theatre, London

The play opens with the funeral of Bernarda’s husband, and centres around her efforts to contain her daughters brooding sexual desires. Lynn Farleigh’s convincing matriarch, however, towers over the all too meek and still daughters. Her barbed exchanges with Poncia, the ageing maid (Rowena Cooper) become something of a double act by default.

Federico Garcia Lorca’s portrayal of the ‘battle to break free [of a] suffocating society [where] behavioural censorship is the norm’ has considerable relevance today. However, instead of a critique of the encroaching familial state of the here and now, we were confusingly treated to a period piece on ‘domestic fascism’ that nevertheless allegedly has ‘enormous resonance for women today’.

But the Spain of the 1930s couldn’t be more different from our feminised times, which are characterised by subservience to the work-life balance rather than a rural patriarchy.

Lorca completed this, his final play, just three months before his murder by anti-Republican forces. The circumstances in which he was writing are reduced here to a case of ‘Repression breeds repression in an unending cycle’, with Bernarda just another victim in the continuum of abuse. The characters’ tragic fates are in this way wedded to a contemporary prejudice, that they must be forever subject to the psychic scars inflicted on them in their youth.

When Bernarda insists ‘In this house there are no mysteries’, I’m inclined to agree with her. I understand the director, Auriol Smith, was drawn to the play’s ‘claustrophobic intensity’. His and artistic director, Sam Walters’, visit to Lorca’s home of Granada, however, was apparently in vain. The characters’ talk of the ‘breaking storm’ and ‘oppressive heat’ never materialise.

At the close, Bernarda’s desperate plea for ‘silence’ is chilling – yes, because it anticipates the Franco regime – but more so because it speaks of today’s censorious climate. Fascism may have had its day, but the defence of the imagination, and of freedom of expression, are as important as ever.

The House of Bernarda Alba is about frustrated desire. This was trivialised by a too literal and overly ‘social’ interpretation. Faithful to everything but the text, the production fell flat, failing to capture either the ‘authenticity’ of Lorca’s Andalusian tale, or to engage with the universal themes that could make it contemporary.

Till 19 April

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