Spain during the 1930s. A strict household inhabited by women only: two servants, five sisters, a demented grandmother and Bernarda, the matriarch. There's only one man these women have had contact with in years - Bernarda's second husband - and he has just died. The family is about to begin an eight-year mourning period imposed by Bernarda, so when Pepe el Romano comes for the hand of the eldest sister, Angustias (her name translates to ‘torments’), passions emerge and tragedy strikes.
With so many characters on stage, all dressed in black, the challenge was to make each personality and intention clear to us from the beginning, which this cast did flawlessly.
From the beginning we're immersed in an atmosphere of passions and contained fires. A flamenco dancer performs a beautiful piece to a melancholic melody sung in Spanish. The result is harrowing but effective. The melody stays at the back of our minds while we see a love triangle unfold. Pepe's night visits are not exclusive to Angustias; he's interested in another sister. Could it be the younger and misunderstood Adela? Or perhaps it's the quiet Martirio ('Martyr')?
This production carefully follows the words by Spanish playwright Federico García Lorca, with some modern elements. For instance, the story takes place in a minimalistic setting which uses light changes to highlight the moods on stage. This also helps us to focus primarily on the escalating emotions of a family forbidden to feel: “Don't cry one tear,” Bernarda orders just after her husband's funeral. Another interesting element is the use of slow-motion scenes in critical violent moments adding to the despair and to Lorca's idea of this being a 'photographic documentary.'
Although at the centre of this family crisis and love triangle is a man, we only see females as Lorca's script instructs. With so many characters on stage, all dressed in black, the challenge was to make each personality and intention clear to us from the beginning, which this cast did flawlessly. Where the play diminished its credibility and lost some effect was in the physical delivery of some characters. This is the case of Martirio, a character who we find out to be hunch-backed through the dialogue but whose hunch we never see. The same happens with Poncia, a woman we only find out to be an elder when she mentions so.
Some acting was remarkable. Worthy of mention is Bernarda, played by Emily Thomson on this night. Thomson perfectly captured the spirit of a dominating woman who controls her daughters like a puppet-master. It is surprising how the maturity and energy of her character is not delivered through makeup or costumes but through persuasive acting.
The House of Bernarda Alba is still as absorbing and controversial, as if 80 years hadn't elapsed since its writing. When Martirio says “there's no worse punishment than being born a woman” and the words resound as if they were meant for our generation, all we want to do is jump on stage to stop Bernarda and save her daughters. Not many plays can claim such commitment.