Theatre Review - The House of Bernarda Alba

Harriet Walter (Bernarda Alba), Isis Hainsworth (Adela) and Eileen Nicholas (Maria Josefa) in The House of Bernarda Alba

THE Russian playwright Anton Chekhov famously said that if a gun appears in act one it must go off by the end of the play. In Rebecca Frecknall’s bold production of Federico García Lorca’s 1936 drama, a rifle is prominently positioned on the back wall. Even if you don’t know the plot of Lorca’s last play before he was murdered by right-wing nationalists at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, you can guess the firearm will prove integral.

After the death of her second husband, Bernarda Alba (Harriet Walter) insists on observing tradition, mourning quietly at home with her five daughters, elderly mother (Eileen Nicholas) and two servants (Thusitha Jayasundera and Bryony Hannah). Bernarda is determined to safeguard her family’s reputation – believing no man from the village is good enough for her daughters – and effectively imprisons them; physically and emotionally.

There’s no real camaraderie between the sisters, no united front against their mother’s tyranny. The eldest, Angustias (Rosalind Eleazar), the only one with a sizable dowry, is engaged to marry a local man Pepe El Romano (James McHugh). It is suggested that Bernarda’s second husband sexually abused Angustias. The youngest, Adela (Isis Hainsworth), is having a passionate affair with Pepe and believes herself in love. When her sister Martirio (Lizzie Annis), in a jealous fit of pique, exposes Adela’s nightly meetings, Bernarda takes aim at Pepe (with the aforementioned gun) and the play proceeds to its tragic conclusion.

It’s terrifically staged by Frecknall (making her directorial debut at the National Theatre). Alice Birch’s radical version is thrillingly multi-layered and intense, although slightly let down by the ubiquitous swearing. It’s beautifully acted and Merle Hensel’s impressive split-level set (evoking, at different times, a doll’s house, convent and prison) and costumes are gloriously detailed and imbued with potent symbolism.

To January 6

Originally published by Westminster Extra