REVIEW: The House Of Bernarda Alba, National Theatrre ✭✭✭✭

Paul T Davies reviews Lorca’s The House Of Bernarda Alba at the National Theatre.

The House of Bernarda Alba
Harriet Walter. Photo: Marc Brenner

The House of Bernarda Alba.
National Theatre.
28 November 2023
4 Stars

Beginning on the day of her husband’s funeral, Bernarda Alba announces eight years of mourning, and seals herself and his five daughters up in their stifling house. Lorca’s last masterpiece, staged just weeks before his death by firing squad, Bernarda is a seen as a metaphor of Spanish fascism and it’s civil war in 1936. The set design by Merle Hensel literally creates a prison, set over three levels, where each room is effectively a cell, and little is hidden, it fells like a cross between Lorca and Prisoner Cell Block H. For me, that’s the biggest weakness of this production. Director of the moment Rebecca Frecknall, (Cabaret, A Streetcar Named Desire), literally throws a fluorescent light on things and emotions that are normally hidden, hinted at, and subtle. Usually, no men are seen, and the local villagers are all offstage. Here Frecknall brings local stud Pepe El Romano, (engaged to older sister Angustias, a financial arrangement as she inherited her father’s money, but he is nightly screwing the younger sister Adela), onstage, from the beginning, dancing like the horny stallion in Act Three. He, and the villagers seeking revenge on the poor village girl who killed her illegitimate child, are threaded throughout the production, and it feels unnecessary. The play begins to tell us how we should feel, rather than show us how the characters are feeling.

House of Bernarda Alba
The House of Bernarda Alba. Photo: Marc Brenner

For me, it creates a schism in the production, for, while the director’s conceits pull focus, the cast is superb. The subject matter and the oppression are horribly relevant, and leading the pack is a magnificent performance from Harriet Walter as Bernarda. Too often, the danger is that Bernarda can be presented as a pure tyrant, one dimensional in her cruelty. Not here. The advantage of the open house and is that we see her private anguish whilst not in front of her daughters and servants, and we see the pressures she has self-inflicted as well as societal pressures. Her first, and last, word spoken in the play is “Silence”, and she does something with that final silence that I haven’t seen an actor do before. It is heartbreaking and one of the theatrical moments of the year. She is matched by Thusitha Jayasundero’s superb Poncia, a long-suffering and long-serving maid, the surrogate mother to the girls, thrilling them with her saucy tales of her husband, seeing the tragedy unfolding although Bernarda is blind to it. Eileen Nicholson is almost show-stealing as Bernarda’s dementia-affected mother, Maria Josef, the freest member of the household, telling truths about the daughters as she mourns the loss of her son and the lack of men in the house. The daughters are uniformly excellent, the pressure cooker of a situation making them each other’s wardens, and I would have been equally involved if they had performed on a bare stage.

House of Bernarda Alba
Photo: Marc Brenner

Alice Birch’s version, possibly after her work with Clean Break, peppers the script with the F word, and it feels very incongruous coming from the mouths of these repressed 1930s women, although it does underline the uniformity of their situation. For me, that enhances the dichotomy at the heart of the production. Undeniably inventive, the acting is so powerful the production often pulls focus away from the ensemble.

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