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June 03, 2005

The Family as Hell: The House of Bernarda Alba - Frederico Garcia Lorca, adapted by David Hare

Posted by David Wootton

Frederico Garcia Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba
adapted by David Hare; directed by Howard Davies
National Theatre, London
Lyttelton Theatre
in repertory March - July 2005

Watching the National Theatre's brilliant production of The House of Bernarda Alba, David Wootton - Anniversary Professor of History, University of York - is reminded of how vile families can be.

I saw this play first on 9th March, when it was half way through the preview period before the first night. I loved the play, but didn't think much of the production. It's in three acts, and some people sitting near me left after the second act because they were bored. Actually, I thought they were probably having some difficulty dealing with the play itself, but the production did seem slow and laboured. Seeing it again last night was a revelation. The cast (who, judging by the reviews, got their act together in time for the first night) were simply brilliant, breathtaking. The play is one in which the attention shifts from character to character: not so much an orchestral piece as a series of solos and duets. And last night it was like listening to opera or watching dancers, there could have been an invisible conductor so perfectly did each member of the cast seem synchronised with every other, so perfect was the pacing, the timing. It was as if there was an invisible rhythm being beaten out to an invisible score.

One of the astonishing things about theatre is that the difference between a magnificent and a mediocre production can lie in the slightest adjustments. I don't know if I happened to see the cast on a particularly good night, but I had the feeling that they were perfectly at ease, that they too could feel that everything was right. The final curtain was met with a storm of applause, and surely the actors felt it was entirely deserved. Of course the play may have changed between the two performances: at the end of both act two and act three things happen on stage that aren't in the playscript, and though I think the final scene is unchanged the end of act two was so much more powerful last night than in the preview that I think it must have been reworked. I can't imagine anyone pretending to be bored this second time round.

This play is essentially one in which nine women occupy the stage: a grandmother, a mother, five daughters, and two servants. No man appears. It starts with a funeral and ends with a suicide. At the end of the second act a woman (whom we have never met) is killed offstage for fornication and infanticide. At the end of the third the youngest daughter kills herself because she mistakenly believes that her lover has been murdered by her mother. It is a play in which sexuality and love are constantly repressed (none of the daughters has been allowed to marry, although the eldest is thirty-nine) and in which sex figures both as a wonderful liberation and something so dangerous that no place can be found for it within the world as it actually exists. Two months after he finished writing it, Lorca was shot by the Fascists for being a leftwing homosexual the Civil War was just beginning. The play was not performed in Spain until after Franco's death.

Above all it is a play about tyranny and hypocrisy. I ran into some friends in the interval between the second and third acts. They said that it was good that Bernarda, the matriarch (Penelope Wilton), was being played as if she had at least some redeeming qualities. Pardon? The whole point is that she has no redeeming qualities at all. She is brutal (she beats her adult daughters and is happy to think of them as her enemies), she believes one should never look beyond appearances, she is concerned only with her own position in the world, her daughters' misery means nothing to her, she talks happily (if that is the right word) of keeping them chained up as long as she lives. The one extraordinary capacity she has is to see the bad in other people. When her housekeeper (Deborah Findlay) announces, in the opening scene of the play, that she would "happily thread hot needles through her eyeballs with my own hand" we are bound to reserve judgement: we have yet to meet Bernarda. By the end of the play we know that the housekeeper is absolutely right.

What the play shows brilliantly is how a sort of life continues even in a world pervaded by threats and intimidation. People tell sort-of-jokes, and have sort-of-friendships. They nurture forlorn hopes for a better future. They almost make something of their lives. But in truth, in this absolutely barren world no good can come. We are living, as the housekeeper tells us, in a hell of Bernarda's making. Adela (Sally Hawkins), the daughter who kills herself, makes the only escape she can. At the end, all the others are as trapped as they were at the beginning. Bernarda is busy constructing the lie that her daughter has died a virgin. We are told she has courage: the courage required to transform reality wholesale into a lie.

It is an absolutely wonderful play, not because it offers hope (though there is some fragile scope for hope: if Bernarda were to die the world would be changed overnight) but because it looks so unflinchingly at domestic evil. People often lament the breakdown of the family and talk of family values: it is salutary to be reminded just how vile families can be. There is no nonsense here about women being caring and nurturing. The play, although it is entirely about women, sees them simply as human beings, neither better nor worse than men. As a result it is neither feminist nor chauvinist. Why then portray a world in which there are no men? Because it enables Lorca to move all the sex off stage. The play is pervaded by talk of sex, but sex becomes something that exists only as it is reflected in the mind. This, and the constant repression of perfectly normal sexual desires, may be interpreted (if you wish) as a comment on the position of homosexuals in a Catholic society.

It would be very interesting to compare this translation with Tom Stoppard's (1973). I would be surprised if Stoppard had the required ear for the phrase that turns your blood cold. Hare has obviously been trying to develop the knack I saw his Stuff Happens, a play about the origins of the Iraq war, recently at the National and it is littered with them, the title being just one example. The night I saw Stuff Happens was the night Bush beat Kerry, which made the anti-war politics of the play very apposite but also made the whole enterprise seem somewhat futile. The point of Hare's play seemed to be that supposedly clever people (I mean people like Rice and Wolfowitz, not, of course, Bush or Rumsfeld for that matter) are capable of doing very dumb things. The play left open the possibility that had they had any sense of what the consequences of what they were doing would be, then they would have felt the obligation to do something different. They were trapped in a world of unintended consequences as a result of the poverty of their own imaginations.

Lorca's picture of the world is much blacker. Bernarda knows exactly what she is doing, and all its consequences. As she puts it, she looks death in the face. She lies, of course, about what she sees, but she lies out of political necessity, not because she is incapable of seeing the truth. I suppose she barely deceives herself. But when she says "We shall drown ourselves in a sea of mourning" it is not her dead daughter for whom she mourns, but her temporary loss of control over events, and mourning, as at the beginning of the play, is simply a way of asserting control over others. With Adela's death, something has happened in a world in which nothing was supposed ever to happen. Events, as the housekeeper warned, have slipped out of control. But Bernarda will re-establish her power; and faced with the same situation in the future she would not change her behaviour in the slightest. She has the courage required to repeat her own mistakes and to go on paying the price, a price she pays with her daughters' suffering not her own.

Lorca tells us himself (the quotation is in the programme) about the original Doa Bernarda:

a very old widow who kept an inexorable and tyrannical watch over her unmarried daughters. They were prisoners deprived of all free will, so I never spoke with them; but I saw them pass like shadows, always silent and always dressed in black.
I have only one complaint about this wonderful production, and that is that there are too many colours and too many jokes in it. The play is suffused with blackness. The rooms, according to the script, are supposed to be pure, bright white (the set is wonderful, but far from white). The overall effect should be one of black on white. I suppose one cannot stage such a production in a world in which people no longer wear black, in which no one can imagine a mourning that lasts for eight years. It's hard to portray the full harshness of tyranny to an audience who are free. It's hard to resist the opportunities to go for a laugh. Still, let's be grateful for this nearly perfect production.

David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History, University of York.


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I really enjoyed reading this analysis and have sent the link round to cast & director of our current production of this version of Lorca's magnificent play at York Theatre Royal. (February 2009)
We have been sold out every night and received excellent feedback from critic and audiences alike. Our director, Andy Love, hadn't seen the premiere at The National, but he managed to secure the performing rights for our amateur company (York Settlement Community Players). He kept the colours to black, white & red and has been determined to reveal the repression and gallows 'humour' of Hare's wonderful adaptation. In his review of our production, Charles Hutchinson of The York Press said 'In Hare and Settlement's hands, Lorca's drama is not only a suffocating domestic drama but also, as the giant crucifix dangling over the stage empasises, it carries the weight of damining repressive religious regimes. For all the splinters of dark humour, the tone is sombre and yet vitality will burst through'.

Posted by: Beryl Nairn at February 27, 2009 08:59 AM
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