Federico García Lorca’s classic text is (re)interpreted by Jo Clifford and Directed by Jenny Sealey in the first major Graeae Theatre Company and Royal Exchange Theatre co-production. With an all-female, D/deaf and disabled cast, The House of Bernarda Alba plays at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre 3-25 February 2017. Review by Joe Turnbull.
The House of Bernarda Alba, completed in the same year as the outbreak of Civil War in his native Spain, was Lorca’s final play before his murder as a result of the conflict. This classic tale of tyranny, repression and family politics foresaw the rise of fascism, which would engulf Europe and drag the rest of the world into the bloodiest of all wars. Graeae’s production carries a certain foreboding, with current internal tensions and the re-emergence of the far right all around us.
Bernarda Alba (Kathryn Hunter) is the despotic matriarch who has just lost her husband and is determined to instil a disciplined eight-year regime of mourning on her five adult daughters. For the group of already subjugated siblings, the prospect of even more stringent control and further isolation will push the entire family to breaking point.
As we have come to expect with a Graeae production, the use of audio-description and captioning are paramount and BSL is integrated into the very fabric of the interpretation. Angustias (Nadia Nadarajah) and Adela (Hermon Berhane) communicate almost exclusively in BSL, with the remaining daughters alternating between interpreting what they are saying for the other characters and the audience, and occasionally signing themselves.
As in all families, there is a complex interplay of power relations, alliances, and varying levels of understanding. The non-signing characters will seemingly choose when to understand, and who interprets for whom becomes a signifier of the closeness or distance between certain relationships.
These dynamics are so integral to our reading of the play and the interactions between characters, the use of BSL creates an extra layer of meaning and interpretation adding to the richness of the text. The truly transformative nature of Graeae’s approach simply can’t be underestimated.
Bernarda is driven by a fanatical sense of duty to protect the family from any perceived loss of status as a result of her husband’s death. As a household made up exclusively of women their situation is precarious, despite their elevated class status, in comparison to the villagers around them. Even in death, the man of the house holds the cards, in choosing who to bestow his inheritance on. She sees none of the villagers as worthy of her daughters: “The poor are like animals, they are not like us”, hinting that even if you’re on the right side of the class divide, the internalisation of male oppression can be just as damaging.
Hunter’s Bernarda embodies the worst aspects of patriarchy acting to imprison the family within a web of deceit and suspicion. In so doing her character acts a metaphor for the rise in fascist values, as perceived by Lorca. She is the black hole at the centre of this galaxy – everyone and everything is sucked into Bernada’s orbit and dragged inexorably to the event horizon. Such is the veracity of Hunter’s performance that she does at times eclipse the other cast members. Though there are several moments where others shine, Alison Halstead’s Poncia and Nadarajah’s Angustias being the brightest.
The staging is delightful in its simplicity. For most of the play it is made up of chairs set up in a heptagon, connected by beams of light with seven pieces of fabric hung from overhead as if by hangman’s nooses – reflecting the shape of the auditorium.
Despite Bernarda’s apparent vigilance, she fails to see the disaster unfolding in front of her eyes. In an arena where so much is communicated by signing, this loss of metaphorical sight is the death knell for Bernarda’s control. When the worm turns, and Adela shatters her mother’s cane, it’s only surprising it hasn’t happened sooner.
In the aftermath of the tragedy that then ensues Bernarda implores silence. Is this the victory of the oppressor, or at least the oppressive voice inside us all? Perhaps not, at the climax her subjugation of dissenting voices is strangely futile. Even black holes can be defied.
The House of Bernarda Alba is at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester from 3-25 February. More details are available on Graeae’s website.
A version of this review was also published in partnership with Exeunt Magazine.