The House of Bernarda Alba
We were at The Studio of York Theatre Royal to see York Settlement Community Players production of Federico García Lorca’s last play. Subtitled as a drama of women in the villages of Spain, the action centres around a period of mourning in an Andalusian village household of a mother and her five daughters.
The mother, Bernarda, is a matriarch who rules her roost with a stick. She rarely appears on stage without it. She thunders in every scene, ordering an eight-year mourning for her late husband, keeping up appearances with her neighbours, making the life of her girls an utter misery. This is a part which is sometimes played in Spain by a male actor.
All of this, is, of course, allegorical. The play’s symbols rattle around the stage, from the names of the daughters to the colours of their clothes. There is a mad grandmother who parades around in a wedding dress, though she is usually locked out of site, and there are a couple of men, but neither of them ever appear on stage.
What is most striking in the script is the simmering heat and repressed sexuality of the women in the house, the cross of Catholicism hanging over each of them, and the insidious creep of fascism closing in on all of their lives.
The eldest and youngest daughters compete for the only available man, and the consequences of this is devastating for everyone involved. The play is brought to a conclusion with an unwanted death and with Bernarda reinstating her authority, insisting that no one ever talks about the events we have witnessed, and that silence reign over all.
This is a difficult play to bring off, and would be so for an experienced professional cast. Lorca’s work brims with symbolism and subtlety, and is placed in a specific time and place, requiring minute attention to detail and timing to bring about an atmosphere of overwhelming sexual and spiritual repression.
It is not surprising, therefore, that this performance, by an amateur company, left its audience not entirely convinced. Nevertheless, the script (translated by David Hare) is so good and some of the players so outstanding, that the evening was in no way wasted. It was an ambitious project to undertake, and we can be thankful that that did not put them off trying.