Photo: Marc Brenner

For those unfamiliar with The House of Bernarda Alba, it was written by queer Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca against the backdrop of the Spanish civil war. It is considered part of his ‘rural trilogy’, alongside Blood Wedding and Yerma, detailing small town life in Spain during the 1930s. This adaptation, by Alice Birch, arrives at the National Theatre with some fanfare, boasting a stellar cast and creative team. Rebecca Frecknall (who directs London’s current production of Cabaret, and also directed this year’s celebrated production of A Streetcar Named Desire) is at the helm; the cast is led by Harriet Walter (Succession, Ted Lasso).

It’s not an easy or straightforward watch – dealing with some challenging subject matter, it considers the control that men have over women and the effects of repression. It tells the story of the formidable Bernarda Alba; we are introduced to her on the day of her husband’s funeral, after which she imposes eight years of mourning on herself and her five daughters. The entire family is effectively imprisoned within Merle Hensel’s incredible set – the house created on the stage really is a marvel to behold, beautiful and clinical in equal measure.

There are some impressive acting performances here – it’s a strong ensemble piece. Playing the five daughters – Angustias, Magdalena, Amelia, Martirio and Adela – are Rosalind Eleazar, Pearl Chanda, Eliot Salt, Lizzie Annis and Isis Hainsworth, respectively. We get some extremely effective insights into each of them when they retire to their individual bedrooms – we can infer a lot about their characters from how they act when they’re alone.

Bringing some humour and perspective to proceedings are the maids of the house, played  by Thusitha Jayasundera and Bryony Hannah – the ease and warmth of their interactions contrasts sharply with the forced formalities of the house’s residents and their guests. Attempting to control proceedings, in the lead role of the tyrannical Bernarda Alba, is Harriet Walter. She cuts a chilling matriarch figure throughout the play in a performance full of brutality, which is brilliantly offset with an occasional flicker of fragility.

We always find it slightly tricky to score a play like The House of Bernarda Alba – while it’s objectively a very impressive piece of theatre, whether or not the audience enjoys it is a different question. It’s a powerful and thought-provoking play which unfolds on one of the most impressive-looking sets we’ve seen, and the acting performances are universally strong. It does, however, tell a relentlessly bleak story – an impressive show, but certainly not one for the faint-hearted.

GAY TIMES gives The House of Bernarda Alba – 4/5

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