The House of Bernarda Alba is a play that every single person should see at least once in their life. It's an absolute powerhouse of a text centered around a family of women and their housekeeper as they navigate themes of repression, passion, and conformity all while examining the impact of men on womens' lives. With the right cast and director, it can represent the absolute best of what theater has to offer - and Alice Birch and Rebecca Frecknall's take on the classic achieves such a feat with flying colors.
Image credit: Marc Brenner
The play, originally written in 1936 as a critique of totalitarianism in Spain during the Civil War, has been updated with some excellent psychological undertones: four daughters battle with each-other, their mother, and their own repressed feelings about sex, marriage and society when a handsome man from the village vows to marry the eldest. The essence of the original play - the inevitability and inheritance of totalitarian regimes - is still very much present, but Alice Birch's adaptation nurtures the slightly more personal elements of the Realist text. Certain scenes play out with almost Absurdist logic, highlighting the complexity inherent in the women's' struggles against societal norms and gendered expectations in an outstandingly satisfying revamp of an already remarkable text.
The greatest joy of Frecknall's production is just how damn clever everything is. The Lyttleton stage set, designed by Merle Hensel, is a masterpiece of staging: somewhere between jail-cell and dollhouse, the individual blocks facing the stage are an absolutely superb way of giving the audience an uneasy omnipotence as they watch the plot unfold before them. The costumes are wonderfully evocative and mirror their characters journeys with genuine allegorical genius. Peter Rice's soundscape and Isobel Waller-Bridge's music are finely-crafted additions to an already exceptional production. In terms of acting, the all-female cast is extremely strong: Harriet Walter is absolutely fantastic as the titular domineering matriarch, but Lizzie Annis as the heartbreaking Martirio and Thusitha Jayasundera as the solicitous housekeeper deserve just as much praise.
The topics and themes, of course, are deadly serious, but Frecknall and her cast tease out some incredibly funny moments too. Birch’s adaptation makes very well-timed use of swears and the escapades of the demented Maria Sofia (played by Eileen Nicholas) as she tries escaping the house are hilariously choreographed. As an audience member, it was particularly interesting listening to who laughed at what: there were moments that only female audience members reacted, often to confused glances from husbands and boyfriends. It's certainly not a typical Christmas theater experience, but it is totally unmissable.
Victoria Comstock-Kershaw is an arts writer and editor for Fetch London.