The House of Bernarda Alba, by Federico Garcia Lorca (trans. Jo Clifford), directed by Jenny Sealey; Royal Exchange Theatre and Graeae Theatre Company, February 3 2017.
A grey linen rag plummets from the lighting rig it has been hanging from, falls down towards the bare and worn floorboards of the stage floor and stops short of them. At the same time a chair falls over with a forceful crash. Pepe el Romano got got. At least that’s what Adela believes. Driven to screams and ultimately suicide offstage by her domineering mother, her conniving, jealous sisters and her own twisting, flipped out ideations the dangling piece of linen represents her body as Bernarda and her household look on in shock whether genuine or feigned. Bernarda fetches the pistol that she doesn’t actually shoot Pepe with from a small cavity in the stage floor. It luxuriates therein on a plush red satin pillow.
There are seven rags initially, hanging over seven chairs. Earlier in the production a different one is lowered and wrapped around Maria Josefa, Bernarda’s elderly mother, who is perhaps deranged but is also somehow prescient in her brief cameos. This is to be her faux-wedding dress and it is almost able to but cannot fully extinguish her individuality. The rest of the time Paddy Glynn’s Maria is all feather boas, excessive make-up and layered chintzy colours, bringing a rebellious dose of glamour to the forcibly sober dress and controlled deportment of the household. That piece of linen has quite a lot to contend with. Glynn brings a necessary strangeness to the role. Her rendition of ‘Little lamb / Let’s go to the shore of the sea’ is just that.
In the second half of the play the daughters switch into pristine white nightgowns; a virginal, vulnerable and feminine contrast to the serious, homogenous black and grey mourning attire we mostly see them in. Adela differs from this of course, choosing to flout the rules with a green dress. Lorca’s play revolves around the balancing of masculinity and femininity, how these traits might be reconciled mentally and physically. The production works with this well by drawing out ideas around dress, the body, appearance, attitude, personal conduct and how these relate to gender in terms of stereotyping and differentiation. Magdalena’s mourning dress and nightgown both have her name embroidered across the chest, a visible display of her natural talent but also a childish, self-centred and rather pathetic attempt in this case at freedom of expression in the face of what is to come. Chloë Clarke brings an array of wonderful facial expressions to this part.
‘O secret voice of dark love’ says the speaker, or one of them at least, in Lorca’s Sonnets of Dark Love. This play is a similarly intense exercise in both erotic and barely concealed devotion. Lorca’s vision of feminine cabin fever and yearning secrecy in the play is chronologically and thematically close to those poems, and it is given inventive and original expression in this production from Graeae. Angustias’ (Nadia Nadarajah) picture of Pepe that Martirio (Kellan Frankland) steals and hides under her pillow is passed around, coveted and giggled at by the girls when discovered like it’s the last photographic evidence of Zayn Malik in existence. At least that is until Bernarda callously and dismissively rips it in half and chucks it on the floor. Despite certain modern touches like the handling of this scene, the feel of the staging here is in many ways very traditional, and this is at odds with the very non-traditional platform of the production.
The colour scheme is a sultry, brooding, ominous blend of dark green and black, switching to a deep rich blue for the scenes set at night. It’s subtly evocative of Andalusia, where the play is set, of suppressed heat, infatuation and emotions. Bright spotlights occasionally cast a fierce glow onto the stage like strong but partial sunlight through house shutters. The focus is narrow, centred, contained.
Emphasis in this interpretation is placed on actors with D/deafness and other disabilities. This is Graeae’s specialism and purpose; throughout the play subtitles flash up on several screens spread around the theatre, sign language is central to the staging, and piped-in audio description is also utilized.
At first these features are disorientating as the audience is required to sync everything up. Which character is signing for which, how much lag is in the subtitles, where is that voice coming from and why now? Ultimately however, these elements become more than a simple practical tool and assume their own suggestive rhythms, adding further layers to Lorca’s rich dialogue.
The voiceovers from Kathryn Hunter’s Bernarda that ring through the speakers in a raspy purr are particularly effective at bringing an offstage psychological element to her authoritarianism and control of the house, contrasting with her on-stage predation and the banging of her heavy cane. It functions as a powerful, theatrical thought-control, though Hunter’s physical frame appears frail onstage. This discrepancy creates an arresting dynamic between Bernarda’s ideological and bodily presence. There is fragility behind the harsh and self-assured law-making…eight years mourning, no crying, no flirting, and definitely no boy bands.
The signing directs the audience’s attention around the whole cast. The various performers’ disabilities are used to further some of Lorca’s own ideas about class, society, gender and marginality. The servants mostly sit on small stools, the floor next to them printed with the legend ‘Low Seat’ taken from Lorca’s stage directions. Lines from the text are also printed in prominent bold text around the theatre balcony. Yet Alison Halstead’s Poncia (the housekeeper) also enters the heptagonal centre space of the stage – defined by bright metal strips and dominated by those with economic and class superiority – and takes a seat at one of the daughters’ chairs.
There’s something subversive in this act, as there is in the way that the two maids (played by Natalie Amber and EJ Raymond) circle that central sphere of influence, one wheelchair bound, one mute and constantly signing, but never gain any traction in it – other than polishing chairs, gossiping and passing comment. It’s more about their presence there though, and the potential of that presence and their character’s social status to be inflammatory or seditious. It’s the way that you’re not sure who is signing for who, and the implications of a socially superior character’s lines being relayed by their inferior.
Poncia is instrumental as a vehicle for the characters’ unloading of sexual tension, she facilitates release. Halstead is commanding and assertive in this role, bringing a strong, frisky presence despite her small stature. She sows the seeds of resistance and bravado, inciting girls to be girls and explore those parts of themselves that Bernarda tries so hard to keep locked away. She is a cerebral and spiritual foil for Bernarda as they both manipulate and choreograph events in the house, though she functions more as a subtle enabler than a both barrels dictator.
There are excellent performances across the board from this all female cast. Hermon Berhane stands out as Adela. She plays the part in almost total silence save for a few panicked outbursts. Yet even without words her stage-presence is beguiling, dancing her part as the play nears the key climax for the character. Similarly, Berhane’s bangles on one wrist draw further attention to her character’s presence adding an uncanny percussive effect to her gestures. The silent space she creates for her character is as telling and as simmering as a louder one. It’s a kind of literal embodiment of the quiet that Bernarda often demands, her suicide being the ultimate kind of silence.
In other moments sound is just as important to the production as silence. The effects used are, like the lighting and choice of colours, redolent of the play’s Andalucian setting: bells toll, people are heard emerging from Mass, insects buzz, birds chirrup, the reapers march past on their way home from work. The girls’ renditions of the little songs in the play are totally charming with their sighs and giggles at the end of refrains. During the scene where the frustrated stallion in heat (representative of the daughters’ own desires and the heated confrontations) begins to kick, the sound effect successfully makes many audience members jump. These jump scares were perhaps not expected by many, but they are present.
Overall this is a production with moments of truly powerful intensity, carefully balancing moments of real cruelty and the strong sense of repression with a flair for emphasising the plays lighter moments, all without losing focus on the play’s principle ideas. The scenes where Bernarda opens her black fan and her daughters on cue all extravagantly open their own and waft themselves in unison are a fantastic representation of the care and thought that has gone into the staging. Graeae and the cast should be praised for the new light they shed on the play, their original approach and the lasting questions they pose for the audience.