Theatre Review: THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA – Royal Exchange, Manchester


Kathryn Hunter in THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA.  Photo by Jonathan Keenan

Intense, bitter and darkly comic, Graeae’s full-blooded adaptation of Lorca’s final tragedy focuses on the emotional intensity of the piece

Following their radical production of BLOOD WEDDING, Graeae Theatre Company return to the stage to take on another of Lorca’s classics, THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA.

Based on the Spanish play by Federico García Lorca, THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA centres on the events of a house of the Alba family during a period of mourning. Bernarda’s husband is dead and she now rules her household and the lives of her five daughters alone. Bernarda tells her daughters they must go through an eight-year mourning period, without contact with the outside world and the men who might bring them ruin. That is except for Angustias, Bernada’s eldest daughter whose inheritance has attracted a wealthy local suitor. As the wedding approaches, Bernarda struggles to retain her suffocating grip on the family and on these women whose appetite for defiance is growing.

Intense, bitter and darkly comic, the Royal Exchange Theatre and Graeae Theatre Company’s spare and full-blooded adaptation of Lorca’s final tragedy focuses on the emotional intensity of the piece, building up the tension and atmosphere like a storm. The piece is deliberately provocative and challenging, bringing out the competitiveness, danger, fragility and brutality of the heated tale.

What makes Graeae’s production of THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA so special is its unique focus on accessibility. Jo Clifford’s translation weaves the actor’s disabilities into the text while Jenny Sealey’s direction merges captioning, British Sign Language and audio description into the fabric of the production to make it part of the aesthetic.

Throughout the play Adela and Angustias use being Deaf to connect or disconnect with their family members. Yet not everyone in the Alba family signs or lip reads, leading to moments of tension and frustration and a shift in the power dynamics. The result is a complex and nuanced performance which underlines the themes of power, status, punishment, intimacy and blindness that haunt Lorca’s original text.

In terms of performance, Kathryn Hunter delivers a first-class performance as Bernarda, the tyrannical matriarch of the family.  Sitting in a chair with a silver-topped cane in hand, Hunter’s Bernarda may look tiny and frail but she exudes dominance, ruling over her household and her five unmarried daughters with a rod of iron.

Of the five daughters, Hermon Berhane stands out for her performance as the wilful Adela, her understated portrayal eventually boiling over into seething envy as the play develops. The power battle within the house is also well-caught, with Alison Halstead delivering a strong, if somewhat deceitful performance, as chief servant La Poncia.

Yet, while the ensemble deliver a strong performance, there could be more refinement throughout to maintain the play’s punch. At almost two hours long, the intense first half goes on for too long while the second half, at around 30 minutes, is over too quickly. Occasionally, the captioning also falls behind, distracting from the action on stage and interrupting the flow of the piece.

That said, for the most part, this is a successful production that gets to the heart of this ever-captivating piece and you can’t fault the extraordinary talent of the D/deaf and disabled actors. An intense reworking of Lorca’s classic.

3.5 out of 5 stars

THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA runs at Royal Exchange until 25 February 2017

photographer Jonathan Keenan