David Hare’s new version of Federico Garcia Lorca’s tragedy is a lavish and often witty production, focusing on the complexity of human emotions.It’s a play that deals with oppression but also, interestingly, with liberation.
Opening soon after the death of Bernarda Alba’s husband, we are introduced to the main women: Bernarda herself, her servant and friend Poncia and her five eccentric daughters. Refusing to relinquish her maternal grip on her girls, she enforces a tyrannical eight year mourning period, influenced by her obsession with the church and her need to maintain the family’s reputation.
Eldest daughter Angustias is richer than her sisters as she was fathered by another man; though past her bloom, she becomes the object of a young man’s affections and it is soon clear that this will be a marriage of transaction.
However, at the same time, the young man (who never actually appears on stage) also makes a play for the attention of Adela, Angustias’ much younger and more beautiful sister. The events that ensue are sometimes desperately funny but ultimately, the house of Bernarda Alba is destined to be shaken by tragedy.
Lorca hoped to present realistic, recognisable scenarios in his writing. And in this production, the superb cast and elegant new translation honour his intentions.
The plot gradually reveals the sibling rivalries and jealousies that have been brewing within the family for years and the tense and spiteful behaviour that now unfolds.
The all-female cast are uniformly strong. As the melancholic Magdalena, Justine Mitchell’s performance is fabulous, conveying a woman full of lost hope and despair. Her moment of triumph comes briefly and poignantly at the play’s end when she finally realises what her family’s spite has manifested into.
Jo McInnes is similarly powerful as the hunchbacked Martirio, devoted to her younger sister Adela, but whose jealousy becomes a malicious force within the family.
Penelope Wilton as the eponymous matriarch and Deborah Findlay as Poncia both portray women of an older generation who attempt to maintain their grip on reality by controlling those around them. Both actresses give compelling and effective performances in these matriarchal roles; their overbearing control of the girls is frightening yet their fading vigour still evokes sympathy.
As Bernarda’s mother, Cherry Morris is also particularly convincing as the senile woman, her character reminiscent of a Greek chorus; her rants and prophetic speeches showing a woman desperate for happiness.
As Adela, Sally Hawkins has perhaps the most difficult role for it is her character that encapsulates the spirit of Renaissance Spain and the vitality of Spanish culture. Adela succumbs to Pepe as Spain succumbed to Franco – both destined to be destroyed.
Adela also provides an interesting reflection of Lorca himself, as a young artist desperate to regain his childhood naivety. Hawkins convincingly conveys these childlike qualities, this early innocence, and the audience gets to watch her physical and emotional ascent into womanhood via her desire for the man betrothed to her sister.
Lorca’s aim in writing this play was for society to face and accept the flaws of human nature. Bernarda Alba is a warning about the power of lust and jealously to split families apart, about the nature of oppression, and about how, if one person tries hard enough, they can tear a world apart.