“It’s Middlemarch gone mad,” I heard someone say in the interval.
Well, not quite. The social mores surrounding divorce that make people so miserable in Middlemarch are nothing compared to the mores imposed by the newly widowed Bernarda Alba on her five daughters: eight years in mourning and there’s no contact with the outside world, especially when it comes to men. But she reckons without the magnetic attraction of 25-year-old Pepe el Romano, ‘the best catch for miles around’.
We never see Pepe, but the action of the play surrounds him. All five daughters are fascinated by this mystery man, but it is 39-year-old Angustias (who has a different father from the others and is left a considerable amount of money in his will) who makes a shocking announcement: during the patriarch’s funeral, Pepe was at the church. Bernarda berates her for even looking, but soon Pepe and Angustias are betrothed, although everyone including Angustias knows he’s only in it for the inheritance.
Kathryn Hunter as Bernarda commands the house with a big stick; simultaneously a practical and a symbolic aid to the authority and astonishing power that emanates from her tiny frame. It’s no wonder the daughters do as they’re told. She dominates the servants too, led by Poncia, played by Alison Halstead, the only person in the house who seems able to give Bernarda advice. The occasional appearance of Maria Josefa (Paddy Glynn), Bernarda’s elderly mother who is dressed for a spring celebration, brings a sense of freedom to the household, before they lock her up again.
Apart from Hunter’s extraordinary performance in this production from Manchester’s Royal Exchange and Graeae Theatre, there is much to admire in Jo Clifford’s translation. It has been reworked and the show itself has been planned and directed by Jenny Sealey so that deaf or otherwise mixed ability actors are able to give excellent performances. Everything is signed, both by and to the actors, and there are screens around the balcony fronts with synchronised captions. I find, just like Shakespeare’s language, it takes a little while to get used to this, and to know where to look, but it is surprising how signing can add to a character’s emotional commitment.
Set simply on six chairs sitting on wooden boards by designer Liz Ascroft, much of the atmosphere is evoked by the soundscape created by Carolyn Downing,and the lighting by Johanna Town, which traps the women in their circle of chairs. Nevertheless, it didn’t seem as claustrophobic as the text implies.
Of course, rehearsals take time and, particularly when it comes to an integrated production, the technical aspects are harder to get right. And so, at the beginning of the run, there were a few stutters and slight hesitations. But that should be fixed quickly. I think I’ll go again next week when it’s bedded in; I’m sure it will be worth it.
The House of Bernarda Alba is at the Royal Exchange in Manchester until February 25, 2017. For more information, click here.