Review: The House Of Bernarda Alba – Almeida Theatre

A woman’s place is in the home. Well it is when your father has just died and your mother expects you to spend eight years mourning his death. Relocated from Catholic Spain to Iran, Emily Mann’s new translation of Lorca’s final play helps build an overbearing feel of repression and tension.

Bernada Alba is determined to rule her household with absolute authority; this is a matriarch that firmly believes that locking her daughters away is for the best. It’s not a decision borne out of vindictiveness, however, but a cast iron belief that it is the right thing to do to protect the family honour and reputation.
One daughter, though, has a chink of light in the darkness of mourning, a prospective husband to whisk her away from confinement. For Asieh it’s not clear if she is being married for love or as part of a financial transaction. Her sisters also have ideas of escape though realising their love is for the same man, it is a dream that can only end in tragedy.

This is a remarkable and intense look into familial relationships, class and oppression. Condensed into 90 uninterrupted minutes, it is impossible to tear your eyes away from the brewing storm unfolding on stage. Once the storm finally breaks, it provides no relief, just a shattering sense of loss and waste.
This is a beautifully layered and textured House of Bernarda Alba, capturing great intensity in the smallest of inflections. Much of the atmosphere is aided by Bunny Christie’s stunning design, a house hinting at class but also a mausoleum, the sunlight streaming into the hallway an ever-present reminder of a life outside of the shuttered walls. Jon Clark’s lighting also aids the almost painting-like quality of key images, with key light and shadow balanced in tableaux.

Bijan Sheibani has an eye of an artist in his direction, with a strong sense of the power of the visual – from the breathtaking opening image, through the effective use of a group of black burka clad mourners, to the striking images of the matriarch and her family.

Shohreh Aghdashloo shines as Bernarda, a woman of bearing and self-control. There’s something almost regal about her portrayal, considered movements and inflection and just enough acid to keep the servants, and her daughters, in line. Despite the ice cool exterior, though, there is a sense of pain and loss threatening to break through if not controlled.

In contrast to the immaculately presented Bernarda, Jane Bertish’s pinny-clad housekeeper Darya proves to know more than her status would suggest and there’s an uneasy balance of power between the two women.
There is impressive work from the daughters with Hara Yannas giving a beautifully observed portrayal of heartbreak as Adela and from Amanda Hale as the equally in love but more restrained Elmira.

There may be purists who miss the original Andalucían backdrop but this visually stunning, intense and well observed House of Bernarda Alba grabs the attention from the start and doesn’t let the energy drop throughout. Images from this production will stay in the mind for a long time.

Photo: Johan Persson

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