Sparing us the po-faced shroud that tends to fall over stagings of Lorca’s rural tragedy, Bouffes du Nord’s The House of Bernarda Alba liberates the text with a joyful force and wickedly offbeat humour, maintaining palpable tension and going out literally with a bang. Set in Francoist Andalusia, the play depicts a house of women plunged into a period of mourning imposed by widow-matriarch Bernarda, who’s obsessed with shielding her daughters from dishonour and neighbourhood gossip. Mani Muller’s playful French adaptation draws out the characters’ idiosyncrasies, whilst director Carole Lorang’s physical approach keeps the air from going stale in the sealed-off house.
This is a production that explores social, spiritual and physical entrapment by colourfully yearning for freedom, rather than wallowing in sombre claustrophobia – making for a more engrossing (and fun) theatrical experience. The floorboards of Peggy Wurth’s plain wooden set reach forward jaggedly into the earthy world outside as sunlight streams through the venetian-blind walls, and scenes are often interrupted by a burst of discordant, staticky music, hinting at pent-up desires ready to maniacally bubble over.
The cast, female other than Jérôme Varanfrain’s cross-cast Angustias, tread the line between comedy and tragedy adeptly, and with great physical skill, embracing the covert campness of Lorca’s play without tipping into full-on farce. Anne Lévy is particularly compelling as the meddling maid, locked in a power-struggle with a suitably stern Sylvie Jobert as materfamilias Bernarda. Varanfrain makes a sympathetic Angustias – distanced from her sisters in the play by her age and inherited fortune, and here by the actor’s gender and restrained, calculated performance.
There’s some gorgeous ensemble work as the cast imbue their characters with physical quirks and slip into evocative movement, and the disquieting sound design (Franz Leander Klee, Florien Appel) is accompanied by the eerily tuneful voice of Veronique Nosbaum playing Bernarda’s mother, resident madwoman-in-the-attic Maria Josefa. Bach-Lan Lê-Bà Thi is devastating as Adela, bringing the inevitably grim climax to a production whose bold cacophony rails against the tyrannous call for darkness and silence.
La Maison de Bernarda Alba is at Bouffes du Nord in Paris until 15 Feb. For more information and tickets visit Bouffes du Nord’s website.