Review: The House of Bernarda Alba

Image credit: Zhen Zhen

The final work of Spanish dramatist Federico García Lorca, The House of Bernarda Alba is a play which explores themes of class, gender and sexual repression. Set for its entirety in the house of formidable matriarch Bernarda (Sabrina Gilby), the play follows the Alba family during the eight-year period of mourning which Bernarda has imposed over her five daughters, following the death of her second husband. Lorca notes that the play should resemble a ‘photographic document’, and Daniel Emery’s adaptation certainly stays true to this; the length of each of the three acts is long enough to allow tensions to successfully mount, whilst simultaneously giving the audience the sense that they are experiencing the chaos which ensues in a series of snapshots.

Bernarda’s ominous presence is conveyed from the moment of her first appearance. Carrying a cane, she enters the mourning procession proudly, scolding her daughter Magdalena (Evie Butcher) for crying during the funeral service. Emotionless, her gaze penetrates the audience, and her authority is felt through her daughters’ collective repetition of her words. The eeriness of the atmosphere is further heightened by the black of her daughters’ veils, which conceal their faces and contrast to the spotless white walls of the house. From the outset, it is evident that the girls are trapped, both in a physical, and psychological sense.

The set design accentuates the claustrophobia felt by the girls. The high walls impose on the room, casting shadows, and the narrow windows are prison-like in their appearance, highlighting the girls’ inability to escape. Constant references to the heat serve as a reminder of the girls’ difficulty in controlling their sexual frustrations, and as the third act commences, it appears that the walls have been moved closer together – the smaller space gives the sense that the girls are truly suffocating under their mother’s control. This is particularly true of Bernarda’s youngest two daughters, Martirio (Emma Corrin), and Adela (Alice Carlill), who can no longer supress their desire for handsome, young Pepe el Romano, the man expected to marry their older sister Angustias (Xanthe Burdett).

As the rivalry over Pepe mounts, Adela becomes more and more determined to free herself from Bernarda’s grip. Her uncontrollable desire is evident in her tone of voice, as she clutches the arm of La Poncia, the housekeeper (Dolores Carbonari) and exclaims that she will do ‘anything to quench this fire which burns between my legs and in my mouth’. She becomes increasingly manic, and this is evident in her appearance; as she returns from one of her secret meetings with Pepe, her eyes wide, the audience can see twigs in her hair and creases in her white dress. Adela is no longer afraid, and by the time Bernarda finds out about her secret meetings, she is so impassioned that she reacts by snapping her mother’s cane, crushing the symbol of Bernarda’s power with shocking ease.

As the play draws to a close, the sense of hysteria only grows stronger. Bernarda, blind to Adela’s state of frenzy, attempts to rid the family of Pepe for once and for all. The unintended consequence of this, however, is a tragedy which will haunt the audience even after the play’s conclusion. Expect to leave the ADC numb in the aftermath of this powerful portrayal of Lorca’s work. 


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