Review: The House of Bernarda Alba

Connie Fisher 6 March 2013

The House of Bernarda Alba

Corpus Playroom, Tues 5th March- Sat 9th March, 7pm

An a cappella solo from Maria Pawlikowska, accompanied by the rhythmic panting of the full cast of twelve female actors introduced the intense, sensual atmosphere that would pervade The House of Bernarda Alba.

Although the song at first seemed to place the play in an oddly pressured Broadway musical, the script soon drew the audience into the claustrophobia of a 1930s Spanish high summer, and into an enclosed house that was soon to explode.

Sparse set pieces and a large female cast dressed all in black could have been a recipe for dullness, but as each role grew more nuanced, the complexity of the characters and their relationships denied any need for a more interesting set. In Jesse Haughton-Shaw’s production of this translation of Lorca’s play, matriarch Bernarda (Laura Waldren) attempts to lock up her five daughters in a ten year period of mourning for their father. Each daughter becomes increasingly frustrated with her enclosure and lack of prospects, and when a suitor for the eldest appears, the household begins to rupture.

Waldren skilfully explored the interior complications of a troubled mother desperately trying to keep control of her family, and consequently destroying it. The audience caught glimpses of the broken and scared aged woman beneath the harsh, militant exterior of her barked orders and physical violence.

Bernarda’s cynicism about the role of women infected her daughters, each of whom expressed their frustrations differently. The emergent competition between Adela (Kay Dent) and Martirio (Olivia Stocker) created the most twisted and heated relationship, Stocker’s Martirio brilliantly rivalling Waldren in complexity of character.

As the two housemaids, Nisha Emich and Freddie Poulton, challenged Bernarda’s authority with their strong views and voices, they emphasised the subjection of the trapped daughters, but also the weakness of the matriarchal figure. Alongside Bernarda’s ‘mad’ mother (Claudia Grigg-Edo), who did well to keep a straight face while singing a lullaby to a toy sheep, these peripheral characters were the only ones with enough insight to see the disaster towards which the situation was irrevocably headed.

The eternal presence of men was felt, but they were never seen; the only male voices were those of the singing harvesters, who were lusted after by all. As the invisible presence of the suitor, Pepe, gradually undermined Bernarda’s control, there was a powerful sense that the only way for the daughters to escape was to become dependent on a man, and thus their only option was a life of servitude and obedience, regardless of who it was dedicated to.

The simultaneous heavy panting first heard in the song which opened each act, recurred throughout the play. As each pause was filled with panicked, rasping breathing, and frequent references to the heat were made, the intense atmosphere of the house was cleverly developed. Although the treatment of death did not always seem sufficiently sincere, when disaster finally struck, the tension uncoiled in a dramatic scene of high emotion. The quiet grief, shock and terror of the women made for an incredibly effective ending to a deep, intriguing and complex piece of theatre.

Connie Fisher