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of Bernarda Alba
Spain, 1936: a country
on the cusp of a civil war in which the forces of political conservatism and social
repression will eventually overwhelm the aspirations of more liberal minded reformists. In
this charged atmosphere 38 year old poet and playwright Federico García Lorca presents
the manuscript of the third of his peasant trilogy, following Blood
Wedding and Yerma
. It is the story of a family of women, a house of women in fact, enclosed in a world
where men are a destructive external force. The father of the house has just died. His
widow, Bernarda Alba, is determined to maintain control of her daughters and to stand
aloof from the peasants, servants and beggars who reside outside her walls.
Yet passions boil under the oppressive heat of the Andalusian sun. As
an unseen suitor courts the eldest daughter, who has just inherited the bulk of the family
fortune, desire and jealousy threaten to bring down the House of Bernarda Alba as surely
as the melancholic paranoia of Roderick Usher destroyed his. Unfortunately for Lorca, his
political conscience, his social standing and even his sexuality became among the causes
of his death at the hands of fascist thugs, who murdered him later that same year.
It is difficult to avoid a political reading of Lorcas play, and
it is also difficult to criticize it without being accused of insensitivity to history.
The Abbey Theatres production is based upon a new translation by Sebastian Barry (Hinterland) which does not
alter the text in its essential details, but reflects the speech patterns of colloquial
hiberno-English. Director Martin Drury and set designer Francis OConnor have
evidently striven to create a physical space which represents psychological unease. With
its towering, Escher-like interior clearly representing the distorted mind of its central
Matriarch, and coming to a climax with the symbolic shattering of the old womans
cane by her rebellious youngest daughter, there is an explicit relationship between the
political and the personal which not only invites but demands an acknowledgement of its
Lorca wrote to friends with satisfaction that he had stripped his text
of all unnecessary "poetry", a peculiar sentiment from a renowned wordsmith.
Whatever the richness of the original, Barrys translation is flat and colorless. The
addition of hiberno-English phraseology taken into account, there is little that is
linguistically resonant in the speeches made by each of these characters, and their
interactions frequently seem like the contrived pedantry of an ideologue. It is difficult
to believe in these characters as human beings, and even more difficult to accept them as
a family. The situation is not helped by a directorial insistence upon allowing each of
the cast to play their part with their own accent.
There is a fundamental disconnection among this group of people which
has less to do with familial dysfunction than it does with a production which seems
fundamentally at odds with itself. In trying to appeal to the naturalistic as well as
surrealistic elements, Drury has not been able to find a middle ground which successfully
navigates a space for his and Barrys translation of the original text.
The wildly varying accents contribute to a sense of openness in this nominally enclosed
environment which makes a nonsense of its socio-geographical specificity. Though the
script constantly demands the audience accept its assertion of repression at face value,
the production has not succeeded in representing any such thing. The stage has no fewer
than eight entrances and exits, and there is almost constant movement in and out of them.
This seems too busy and free a household for a maternal prison which seeks, paradoxically,
to protect a dynasty by destroying its capacity to continue.
The character of Bernarda Alba herself is also of questionable
veracity. In collapsing the dilemma as a well-to-do widow with five daughters into an
allegory of Spanish Patriarchialism, there is a gender confusion at the center of the
story. This is not helped by the productions reliance on a severe, sexless
characterization by Rosaleen Linehan (Gates
of Gold). In contrast with, for example, John B. Keanes Big Maggie, there is no real sense that
Bernarda was ever a wife and mother. Her treatment of her children thus never ascends to
tragedy, and is also drained of social context. The sub-plots and subsidiary
characterizations are left equally stranded between an allegory and a polemic of
questionable applicability to a contemporary Irish audience.
As you would expect from the National Theatre, the production is
handsomely mounted and there are some strong performers on the stage. Unfortunately, none
of them is given the opportunity to really shine, as the loose direction does not
challenge these actors to produce disciplined performances which cohere with the themes of
the play. Though briskly paced and generally well intentioned The House of Bernarda
Alba never seems to exert quite as much power as it promises to, and what may have
been a cornucopia of social, political, and psychological subtlety in another incarnation
here seems a disappointing muddle.
Dublin, April 16,