I seem to have been going through a mini Kathryn Hunter phase over the last week – not that watching such a consummate actress can be deemed as anything but thrilling. After seeing her in the RSC’s Timon Of Athens she is back on stage in a part she was surely born to play, the dominating matriarch in Lorca’s The House Of Bernarda Alba. Completed just weeks before Lorca’s death/assassination (controversy still exists) in 1936, it is a rich parable about the stranglehold of fascism only placed in a domestic setting. The production in this instance is by the deaf/disabled led company Graeae in collaboration with the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester.
The play begins and ends with death and in between there is much misery, degradation and familial power politics to deal with. Bernarda has lost her husband and is determined to rule her five daughters with a rod of iron. She declares a mourning period of eight years and forbids her offspring to associate with men. But the daughters can be as headstrong and wayward as their mother and a tangled web of intrigue is played out behind the latter’s back and sometimes, in this version, under her very nose; for BSL is used to swap secrets and tell lies. Before Bernarda knows it, she is facing domestic rebellion out of which grows a final tragedy.
While I’m loathe to say what this is for fear of spoiling the ending, suffice to say that a very simple device is used to create maximum shock and proves that fancy special effects are not needed to make a point tellingly and with economy. Intrigued? Now you’ll have to watch. Indeed, the whole of the direction by Jenny Sealey is economical and highly effective creating a stifling atmosphere of repression and fear. Possibly watching in the middle of a heatwave helped as there are copious textual references to the high temperatures so this handed an extra layer to the experience as I copiously mopped my brow. The set just consists of mostly off kilter chairs which the various family members move between in a complicated ritual dance as they try to evade Bernarda’s steely gaze and vice like grip on their lives. The adaptation by Jo Clifford is muscular and direct and drives matters along at a generally strong pace.
Kathryn Hunter’s diminutive stature is certainly gainsaid by her towering performance as she stalks the stage, one arm in a sling, the other wielding a symbolic silver topped cane. She seems little interested in her husband’s demise other than the opportunity it affords her to further control the lives of their daughters which she does with ruthless efficiency. She has turned the thick-walled house into a prison and like a malignant spider spins webs, drips poison and provides a horrid centre of fascination for her victims. Her relationship with Poncia (Alison Halstead), one of her servants, is particularly spiky as their co-dependence makes them embittered foes rather than friends. The scenes between Hunter and Halstead are full of tension as they really spark off one another. The daughters start out as an amorphous group but gradually reveal their separate characters. Particularly impressive are the oldest Angustias (Nadia Nadarajah) and the youngest Adela (Hermon Berhane) both of whom form an attachment for the same man. Nadarajah and Berhane are both deaf but convey a wealth of meaning through looks and gestures. Their words are interpreted via signers integrated into the action as household maids or sometimes through the other characters; surtitling is also used.
Although the play is undoubtedly powerful it always seemed to just stop short of blazing forth in the way that it should. The end of the first act with the revelation that a neighbour’s daughter has given birth to an illegitimate child and has subsequently killed it because of shame was building to a really powerful climax but it all seemed a bit hurried. Having an interval at that point probably also didn’t help because it robbed the piece of a steadily rising tide of repression. Though one of the plus points about watching on video is that I was able to go straight on and not lose the momentum which had built. I was also unclear about what the character of the grandmother (Paddy Glynn) added to proceedings. What she did, she did well enough, but the character just seemed a bit superfluous.
Knowing of the play but never having actually seen it I can quite see why it is regularly hailed as a great piece of theatre but I think it probably is the sort of piece where one needs to be able to make comparative judgements. I note that there is a TV film version available on You Tube featuring Glenda Jackson and Joan Plowright – it would be good to watch this too and come to some conclusions; I just need to wait for the next heatwave to settle in.