Federico Garcia Lorca‘s The House of Bernarda Alba is a formidable play that holds wickedness and envy between every line and subtext is all the dialogue and action. Bernarda Alba is a fortress of a woman, who rules over her house like the dictator Franco ruled over Spain during Lorca’s lifetime. Keeping her daughters under lock and key, Bernarda’s tyranny ultimately leads to the storm that devastates her house, where siblings tear at each other in a desperate attempt to escape.
Emily Mann’s adaptation of The House of Bernarda Alba goes a fair distance to relocate the internal struggles of Lorca’s Spain to Iran. Given the lack of freedom for women in modern-day Iran, the parallels between Lorca’s metaphors and the political unrest of Iran fit well. Whilst the context may be fitting, there is a certain disappointment that the lyrical and poetic nature of Lorca’s original text is not brought across in Mann’s adaptation. Instead, the weighting of the piece is upon the direct dialogue between the all-female cast, with songs and music cut to a minimum.
Whilst disappointing for any purists, the Almeida Theatre’s production of The House of Bernarda Alba is a slick one, capturing the essence of Lorca’s characters and confiing them within Bunny Christie’s beautiful rustic prison of Bernarda’s house. If there is one thing the Almeida does well, it has to be its captivating commitment to design within its small stage space. Christie’s design is as if the membrane of the wall of Bernarda’s house has been removed so that we can watch from the auditorium.
Leading the cast is Shohreh Aghdashloo , whose Bernarda Alba is rigidly proud of herself as a mother. Her stiffness extends to her husky and firm voice, and to her physicality. In many ways, Aghdashloo makes Bernarda into her own tyrant who drives Mann’s action firmly. Yet the real wickedness, the monstrous side that should leave her children quivering under oppression seems to be missing from Aghdashloo’s performance. It’s doesn’t make her portrayal any less enjoyable, but I would have wanted just that little bit more character to really make her blindness and stubbornness prevail. Aghdashloo is brilliantly paired with Jane Bertish as Darya, her confidante and servant. The couple’s scenes together are excellent at bringing out the dynamic of older women worn down with commitment.
As a whole, director Bijan Sheibani has made Mann’s adaptation into a production which is steeped with tension and conviction. The Iranian recontextualising works well, and there are moments where the sheer power of an all-female cast seems to explode. Sheibani’s production may not be as poetic as with Lorca’s original text, but it does present itself well. There is perhaps a sense that Sheibani could have pushed his cast further, especially with Hara Yannas whose portrayal of Adela, the young rebelling daughter, was considerably weak. Yannas’s final moments aren’t portrayed with any sense of escalation and this makes The House of Bernarda Alba end a little too falsely, but this overlooked in comparison to the rest of the production.
It’s good to see an adaptation of Lorca’s classic play working well. The running time of an hour and thirty-five minutes easily makes the production seem effortless to enjoy and immerse yourself in. It may not have the lyrical qualities for which Lorca is known, but The House of Bernarda Alba does give a fine portrayal of repressed Iranian women caught in the sufficating male-driven world.
The House of Bernarda Alba is playing at the Almeida Theatre until 10 March. For more information and tickets, see the Almeida Theatre website,