Lorca’s final work is set against a Spanish heatwave, with Bernarda Alba’s domineering matriarchal regime and the pent-up sexual desire of her daughters reflected in the oppressively hot temperatures. While this production of House of Bernarda Alba begins rather languidly, the heat continues to be ratcheted up throughout to create scenes that crackle and burn as stifled emotions overflow.
The piece is renowned for its power struggles, secret yearnings and rebellion against conformity within an all-female household. Sparks will eventually fly, but the first couple of scenes of ECCLESIA’s debut London production plod along: some bolder directorial decisions and cuts could be made by Scott Hurran to give the opening more impact. Although the companionship and openness of the servants (Maggie Daniels and Antonia Davies) contrast nicely with the uncommunicative Alba family, in the early stages it’s simply too much of a slow-burner.
However, after a while the cast get into their stride and their performances become continually richer and more affecting throughout. Lorca’s web of fascinating imagery is spun with confidence, as we are enveloped in power games, gender politics, social restriction and bitter jealousy. Nesba Crenshaw as the eponymous matriarch is a tower of imperiousness: her performance may seem one-dimensional in another play, but works perfectly here in Bernarda’s terrifyingly severe and suddenly violent figure of authority. In a play that somehow simultaneously tests and reinforces traditional gender roles, she takes on historically male attributes and laces them with fiery cruelty. Yet there are nuances here too in the hint of desperation that leaks out in the play’s final moments, as Bernarda struggles to keep her family’s reputation intact.
Jenny Wilford is both sympathetic and frustrating as the wilful Adela, effectively contrasting with her sisters’ suppressed passions. The costuming by Natasha Prynne is simple yet effective, with Wilford’s green silk dress and loose hair marking her out as a rebel amongst the stiff black frocks. Her anguish at the end of Act I is palpable, and is a key moment in raising the whole level of the production. Hannah Wood also excels as Adela’s foil, bitter and jealous sister Martirio. Understated at first, her seething envy gradually boils over in a well-constructed performance. At times, however, I felt that the ensemble were holding back – there is even more potential within this cast that could be teased out.
David Hare’s adaptation is peppered with modern phrasing, and while a few are rather jarring, it is mostly a success; yet even without these, this play resonates powerfully with a 2014 audience in exploring gender roles and assumptions. It is not a tale of women who all want to defy the norms to achieve liberation: instead their perceived liberation is a route into patriarchal dominance through marriage, while they turn on each other for daring to break the code that so confines them all – slut-shaming before such a term ever existed.
This is an intense work, but a tragedy ultimately full of futility: a power struggle between a group of people who actually have no power, which in fact remains with the unseen man who – perhaps unwittingly – controls every desire and conflict. The ensemble show a keen understanding of these themes and the direction in which their work is going; although there could be more refinement throughout to maintain the play’s punch, this is a successful production that, after a slow start, gets to the heart of this ever-captivating piece.
The House of Bernarda Alba is playing at Kings Head Theatre on Sundays until 29 June. For more information and tickets, see the Kings Head Theatre website.