When I arrived in a sunny conference room at St Catz to watch a rehearsal of The House of Bernada Alba, I couldn’t help but feel that the cast looked a little incongruous in their head-to-toe black costumes, complete with sweeping lace shawls. As they took their positions, I wondered if a student cast could conjure the atmosphere which Lorca’s play demands without the safety net of a dark theatre. If you’re a fan of short answers, here it is: they could. The cast were on fire from the word go, fully committing to their lines with the intensity which the script demands.
The House of Bernada Alba tells the story of the widow and matriarch, Bernada Alba, who imposes eight years of mourning upon her five adult daughters (hence all the black lace, I soon discovered). Ruling the household with an iron fist, Bernada Alba is traditional to the extreme, valuing the family’s reputation above all else. The tension comes from the unseen presence of Pepe el Romano, a local man expected to marry Bernada’s eldest daughter and heiress to a fortune, Angustias. The absence of any onstage male characters allows the play to explore the jealousy, tension, and sexual longing of these oppressed sisters with heightened intensity. It soon emerges that Angustias is not the only sister with an interest in Pepe, and the remainder of the play sees gossip, scheming and lies culminate in an explosive climax.
One of the most exciting things about this production is the unusual decision to stage it in The Cellar. Curious about why he was attempting to transform the edgiest (read: dingiest) venue in Oxford into a respectable house in rural Spain, I asked director Jake Donald to explain: ‘Cellar is dark, oppressive, and unsettling. The audience needs to feel imprisoned – by the finale they should be yearning to get out’. I think we have all felt oppressed by the air in Cellar at some point during our degree, so I’m curious to see how the cast will channel that atmosphere into their performance.
I feel that student productions of very sombre plays can be risky – any overacting can immediately plunge them into the realm of absurdity. Luckily, the director has made gaining an insight into Bernada – by far the most severe character – his priority. The part is handled masterfully by Ella Jackson, whose controlled yet terrifying presence demands attention. It is worth going to see this play just to watch the audience jump as she slams her cane down ‘Darth Vader style’ (as the director jokes).
Judging from the parts that I watched, this is not the play to watch if you’re looking for light entertainment. But, if you are in the throes of exams season panic, and would relish watching someone suffer a fate worse than your own, this may be just the production for you.