Cherwell

Review – The House of Bernarda Alba

Photo: Khameleon Productions

“Many nights I watch Pepe very closely through the window bars and he seems to fade away, as though he were hidden in a cloud of dust like those raised by the flocks.”

Imagine the scene. Stifling midsummer in a pre-WWII Spanish village. The heat is unbearable. Servants clean day and night but no matter how much they scrub, the dirt keeps rising to the surface. Welcome to the House of Bernarda Alba.

The play follows a household of eight women, where Bernarda’s five daughters spend their days embroidering lace that will never make it to a wedding day. The eldest is 39 and the youngest is 20, but all are domineered by their authoritarian mother, who refuses to let them marry anyone who she decides is beneath their rank. In the muggy atmosphere of their wasted lives, the girls are silently united in defiance of their mother… for now.

The dynamics between the sisters were handled with just the sensitivity they called for, and oscillated between intense love and intense hate. There was a tangible chemistry between the actors which added layers of interest. One of the most interesting relationships was the characters’ attitudes towards the one man in the story, who never appears onstage. He is an important character and yet represents of such a void in the lives of these women that this made for some truly heart-wrenching monologues.

The roles that I found most notable were Adela, the youngest daughter, played by Esme Sanders, and La Poncia, the servant, played by Charithra Chandran. These characters were the complete antithesis of the other. The beauty of Esme Sanders’ characterisation lay in the strength of her emotions. In her final monologue, I was on the verge of tears. She made such a striking image looking into the distance, her hands darting over her thighs and playing with her dress. Charithra Chandran’s character was the calm older woman, harnessing her years of experience into an understated wisdom. She used facial expressions and gestures in such a beautifully sparing way, and radiated a rich quality of motherliness and old gossip, which was seriously impressive given her age.

There was an obvious attention to detail in the costumes. Each sister had a slightly different texture of lace and although their dresses were similar, they were different enough to really add something to the characterisations. The contrasts between the layered black mourning clothes and the light white frocks was striking. There was a lovely translucent quality in the fabric of the walls and the lower skirt of Bernarda’s dress, which added to the idea of secrets waiting to rise to the surface. I loved the tiny stool at centre stage, the only piece of furniture available to all of the women.

The yellow lighting and the textures on the stage articulated the stifling atmosphere. There was a violin that would play every so often which created an intense, almost sensual atmosphere that contrasted with the characters’ frustrations beautifully.

My one one piece of criticism to an otherwise brilliant play is that in a couple of moments, I felt that the facial expressions were forced, making the emotions less convincing. But this is something that usually improves throughout a run of a play, as the actors get more comfortable in their characters and the space. Most of the acting was effortless and unforced, and this was done very well both in this and the other play I have seen directed by Isobel Ion. In my opinion, it is the mark of a great director.