Review: THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA, National Theatre

Searing take on Lorca's play of passion and punishment flies and stumbles towards shattering conclusion

By: Nov. 29, 2023
Review: THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA, National Theatre

Review: THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA, National Theatre With a string of commercial and critical successes behind her, Rebecca Frecknall’s debut at The National Theatre has been eagerly anticipated for years. With a sprinkling of her magic, Alice Birch as writer and Harriet Walter as the titular tyrant, how could The House of Bernarda Alba fail? Well, this visually stunning production, if somewhat confusing production, comes dangerously close.

We open on Merle Hensel’s extraordinary set, its three stories of bedrooms/cells one part Jailhouse Rock (good) and one part Celebrity Squares (not so good). Women talk across each other - we can hear but not understand what’s said, a portent of what is to come. Bernarda herself looks on, stiff and disapproving, waiting her chance to intervene and you know it won’t be to ask if anyone would like another cup of tea.

This is the house in which her five daughters have been held under a kind of maternal house arrest set to extend seven more years after the death of Bernarda’s second husband, father of four of the women. The space hums with frustration, sexual and psychological, the mother with a superior attitude nothing like the Mother Superior in The Sound of Music when confronted with her youngest daughter, Adela’s, Maria-like challenge to her authority. In fact, these days, we call it coercive control.

When news emerges that the only eligible bachelor in the village is to marry the eldest sister, Angustias, the only one with money, inherited from her father as a result of paternal love and her stepfather as a result of guilt, it sends shockwaves through the house. It soon becomes evident that Adela is having an affair with him and that Martirio, a middle sister, is infatuated. Things don’t, as I barely need tell you, turn out for the best.   

Lock up your daughters
Lock up your daughters

This production has so many ideas flung at its source that some are bound to stick and some not. Harriet Walter foregoes the infamous stick, so this Bernarda does not sustain the threat (in fact, the reality) of physical violence that underpins her narcissistic psychosis, indeed she often comes across as more foolish than evil, too stupid to see what her servant Poncia (Thusitha Jayasundera, excellent) tells her in plain language. It’s a bold take these days to downplay mental illness but I believe this take does.

As cold as Walter plays the misguided matriarch, Isis Hainsworth plays Adela as hot, a volcano of repressed sexuality who, after clandestine assignations with Pepe El Romano (James McHugh, silent and sexy) knows exactly what she is missing. All that frustration is mirrored in reverse by Rosalind Eleazar, the intended bride, Angustias, whose experience of sex has been as horrendous as Adela’s has been joyous. Roll in Lizzie Annis, heartbreaking as the sister whose engagement her mother broke off and now crazy in love with a man she can’t have twice over, and the house is set to come tumbling down.

Federico Garcia Lorca’s play is one of the greatest of the 20th century, but its power is consistently undermined by the staging. After one reference to heat and a bit of fanning, that crucial element disappears, the electric lights (in a poor village in the 30s, really?) making the house feel as chilly as the heart of Bernarda. Would you wear the same underwear to bed as you've worn all day in this boiling pressure cooker? Everyone evidently does. 

Worse is the regular swearing, a transgression with which Bernarda appears happy to indulge even from her servants. Inevitably, each instance provokes an embarrassed giggle in the audience, puncturing the tight tension that is so critical to the play’s insularity, a self-contained world sliding out of control. The tone that is so crucial to all three plays in the great Spanish trilogy is so sooner established than it disappears. 

Only a little of Lorca’s lyricism survives and not much of the politics either. The physical presence of Pepe on stage (he is usually a lurking unseen figure, as much an ideal of freedom as a man) and a tendency towards exposition, pushes us towards a literal interpretation and away from the metaphorical. That Lorca was shot by reactionary forces just two months after he completed the play in 1936, should hang over its every performance, but seems little more than a footnote here.

Nevertheless, the doubly shocking denouement will live long in the memory, both for its hyper-realistic staging and its closing speech which, along with that of Sonya and Vanya, is the most shattering in theatre.      

The House of Bernarda Alba at The National Theatre until 6 January

Photo Credits: Marc Brenner