BWW Review: THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA, Cervantes Theatre
This is a great, complex, problematic, Shakespearean, mythic, disturbing, provocative play. Federico Garcia Lorca may have set it in an unnamed provincial village in rural Spain and died just two months after its completion (at the hands of Spanish Nationalist militia - look out for them again over the next few years) but he stared into some very dark places in the human soul and brought forth what he saw for our eternal edification and education. Such is the immortality of great artists.
Bernarda runs her house with a rod of iron (literally wood, but wielded with terrifying implacability) corralling her five daughters in the shuttered gloom and still heat to mourn her second husband's death - for eight years. Of course, the ostensible cause is immaterial (her eldest daughter, Angustias, is unmarried at 39) - Bernarda's motivation is to control their humanity through denial of sensual pleasure and the natural warmth of social contact. It is, needless to say, one of the many ways that authority figures (usually, but not exclusively, male) have exercised power over women for millennia - "your body, your spirit, your soul is mine to dispose of as I wish".
But the sisters ache for release, an abstraction made concrete in the person of Pepe el Romana, the unseen man who stands for all the things they are denied. He is to be married to spinsterish Angustias - who has inherited almost all her father's (Bernarda's first husband) wealth and is, consequently, a prized match as a source of money if not children - but he is also conducting a torrid affair with the headstrong youngest daughter, Adela. Unsurprisingly, things do not go well.
Mary Conlon's Bernarda is not as physically brutal as some I have seen, but her ferocious will appears the stronger for it. She handles her cane the way I imagine Mrs Thatcher would deploy her famous handbag: as a mark of difference and a symbol of her remarkable status. Her famous closing exclamations (no spoilers) are delivered with heartless solipsism, the narcissism so deeply embedded as to drown out the impact of any trauma. It's almost painful to witness - especially as we have caught a glimpse (albeit briefly and at the back of the stage, almost hidden) of the price her tyranny has exacted even on her.
The supporting cast are uniformly excellent (the play is delivered by the company in Spanish and English, so pick your night for your language and individual actors). Joanne Kate Rodgers is, to be frank, much too beautiful to match Angustias' description, but her coldness towards her half-sisters is delivered with an understated icy detachment. Moir Leslie brings a comic cheerfulness to her role as the wise maid, Poncia, but her speaking truth to power proves pointless, such is the carapace of Bernarda's egoism.
Beth Smith invests her misshapen Martirio with a deep humanity that makes her appalling behaviour understandable if not excusable, a very fine piece of acting to draw this out in a limited but crucial role. Maite Jauregui is utterly compelling as Adela, all feline temptation and simmering sexuality, a Modigliani nude given clothes and life, a performance that teeters on the edge of melodrama (as it must) but never oversteps so critical a line. With no exposition worthy of the name, you know exactly why Pepe el Romano (unseen, but unnecessary) risks what he risks - and why she does too.
The production is a triumph for director Jorge de Juan who has conjured such wonders from his cast and who explores the full complexity of Lorca's masterpiece at a dizzying pace. It's a work that will infuriate some as much as it entrances others; a play saturated with women's hopes and fears, but written by a man; a thicket of contradictions but also laser beam to dissect the soul. That the cast and creatives prove worthy of the writing is as high a compliment as I can muster.
Photo Elena Molina.