Preview: The House of Bernarda Alba

Image credit: Zhen Zhen

The House of Bernarda Alba, the final play of Federico García Lorca before his murder, follows the intense family drama of a sixty-year old Andalusian matriarch imposing an eight-year mourning period on her five daughters, during which they mustn’t leave their home or form relationships.

On 31st January this much-loved Spanish play will open at the ADC under the direction of Dan Emery, (Bull, Joseph K) with an all-star all-female cast including Sabrina Gilby, Dolly Carbonari, Ashleigh Weir, Emma Corrin and Xanthe Burdett.

Sitting in on a rehearsal, it is immediately apparent that the standard of acting in this play will be incredibly high: Sabrina is an exacting, matronly Bernarda whose emotional complexity beneath her stern exterior is hinted at by the ringing of her hands and tremors in her voice, whilst Dolly’s aged and compassionate La Poncia attempts to reason with her about her strictness towards her daughters. 

I spoke to Dan, Sabrina and Dolly about the play, as well as the experience of putting on an all-female play and being a woman actor in Cambridge. 

Dan’s decision to put on Bernarda Alba was “a little bit, but not entirely” influenced by its being all-female. “A lot of very strong actors in Cambridge are female. That’s not to say that there aren’t strong actors who are male, but the pool you can choose from for female actors is bigger and the standard of cast it’s possible to get is stronger.

“If it had been a play about women’s issues, I would have not felt that I could direct it. It feeds into wider political narratives: Lorca was a gay man in an oppressive society which was, at the time he wrote it, slowly developing towards becoming slightly better, but immediately afterwards became a dictatorship again.” 

Dolly and Sabrina agree. “Lorca managed to write an all-female play that isn’t centred on femininity and gender. It’s more about human conditions and how he writes characters.”

“He’s used an all-female construct to represent the wider male political dominance.” 

Character appears to be one element of the show Dan and the cast are excited by. “Every action the characters do is understandable,” Dan tells me. “There’s not a single action in the play that can’t somehow be explained by exploring the character deeply enough.” 

“You realise it almost in practice,” Sabrina adds. “The more and more you get into it and put it on its feet, the more it makes sense. Everything he wrote has a complete purpose.” 

Bernarda Alba might not be a play about women, but the cast have enjoyed working as an all-female dynamic. “I love doing all-female plays, not going to lie.” Dolly says. “I really, really liked it,” adds Sabrina — although she doesn’t find it hugely different to mixed-gender plays, it’s “a really comfortable atmosphere: it’s energetic and the communication is really good”.  

When asked whether it’s harder to find parts as women actors in Cambridge, Sabrina and Dolly think that, although there are usually fantastic parts for women, the ratio of male and female actors can sometimes make it difficult. 

“Because of the element of competition the criteria as a girl gets narrowed down more and more, especially if it’s a family setup. Girls don’t get parts because they don’t look like they’d belong to that family, whereas they would accept a boy because there’s a smaller pool of choice,” Dolly says. 

She also finds, more generally in theatre, than women characters are still usually a good role model, with “something romantic or male-centric about them. They don’t tend to have a purpose that’s completely outside of a heteronormative relationship”. 

“There’s always got to be some kind of sympathy trigger in there somewhere. You can never just have a really complex dislikable character like you can for a male part,” Sabrina says. Bernarda Alba gets “as close to that as possible”, although still finds “light and shade within the character” which make her “understandable” to a degree. 

Tickets are on sale for the show’s opening in week 2. According to Dan, “it’s basically three relentless scenes in which nothing and everything happens.”

“I think it will be quite a spectacle,” concludes Dolly. 

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