Review: The House of Bernarda Alba, Arts Centre Melbourne.
Could a Spanish rural drama written in the 1930s still be relevant in 2018 Australia? In their production of Federico GarcĂa Lorcaâ€™s The House of Bernarda Alba, director Leticia CĂˇceres and playwright Patricia Cornelius show us that it can.
Lorcaâ€™s play tackles the struggle between oppression and the desire for freedom, paying particular attention to the invisible ways in which women are harmed. Lorca set the play in a specific yet indefinite time and place, which allows it to be transferred anywhere.
Lorca (1989-1936) was murdered in the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) by a Nationalist firing-squad, only months after heâ€™d finished writing the play, which he was never able to see on stage. In it, Lorca criticised the complicit silence around violence towards women – the same retrograde conservatism that would end his life. He even seemed to foresee the long dictatorship that would oppress Spanish women and men starting in 1939.
In the play, after the death of her second husband, Bernarda subjects her five daughters to eight years of rigorous mourning in which â€śno breath of air is going to get into this house.â€ť In Corneliusâ€™s contemporary adaptation, Bernarda is Bernadette; the five daughters are now four; and the time of confinement at home is eight weeks. Without internet.
In her opening monologue, the housekeeper Penelope (Julie Forsyth) informs the audience that after the patriarchâ€™s death, Bernadette (Melita Jurisic) is left with no money and â€śstuck with four ugly girlsâ€ť: Angela (Peta Brady), Marti (Candy Bowers), Magda (Bessie Holland) and Adele (Emily Milledge). Bernadette has also locked up her senile mother, Maria (Sue Jones), who dreams of escaping and getting married.
Attached to the walls, numerous air conditioners warn of the suffocating summer ahead in rural Western Australia. Hanging from the ceiling, several mosquito zappers betray the bugs that circumvent the window screens – and Bernadetteâ€™s ruthless control measures. The absence of a male figure does not prevent the women from being subjected to a repressive patriarchal system. Bernadette embodies the tyranny of a misogynist woman.
Suffering from poor health, 39-year-old Angela is the only heiress to the familyâ€™s fortune, which leads to other deeply human themes: envy, social injustice, hypocrisy. A young man, Peter Romano, shows a sudden interest in Angela, raising both suspicion and repressed passion among her siblings.
Like the rest of the male characters, Peter is talked about but never appears on stage. Men belong on the outside. The external voices of Lorcaâ€™s wheat reapers singing on their way to work are now noisy miners who are free to drink beer and gamble at the pub. Stories of the womenâ€™s sexual defencelessness at the hands of generations of abusive men show that women arenâ€™t allowed the same freedoms. After all, as Adele laments, â€śMen get away with everythingâ€ť.
Despite this, men are inevitably present inside Bernadetteâ€™s house: in the sistersâ€™ conversations, in Penelopeâ€™s retelling of external gossip, in the urn with the ashes of their father, symbolically witnessing their actions.
The matriarchâ€™s obsession and mission is to protect the decency of her daughters (and the reputation of her family name), even if that means confining them to living in what Cornelius describes as a â€śbunkerâ€ť. This imposition of silence and repressive behaviour impedes Bernadette from seeing the approaching tragedy. â€śWhen it comes to your children youâ€™re blind,â€ť forewarns Penelope.
The charactersâ€™ experiences intertwine in the stifling setting of the household. As the weeks go by, the heat and tension escalate, due largely to the daughtersâ€™ sexual repression. Adele, the youngest, claims her right to go out and is especially sensitive to the invasion of her own, individual space. For different reasons, the four sisters are characters in pain condemned to a life between four walls, unable to establish healthy relationships with the outside – or even themselves.
Marg Horwell and Rachel Burkeâ€™s austere set and lighting design evoke a prison. The main stage and the back hallway are separated by bars and sliding doors, contributing to this effect. When the lights emulate sunset or sunrise, elongated bar shadows are projected onto the stage floor. Irine Vela and Jethro Woodwardâ€™s sound design dramatically accompanies the different phases of confinement.
Cornelius and CĂˇceres succeed in bringing Lorca to a contemporary Australian context by taking his universal message and filling it with ordinary, relatable situations and conflicts. Cornelius maintains Lorcaâ€™s original structure, reworking it with references to popular culture: instead of sewing, the characters read gossip magazines filled with plastic surgery makeovers and superficiality. Moreover, intertwined with the inheritance conflict, the play subtly alludes to the Indigenous dispossession of their lands.
The cast is extraordinary. The performances are nuanced and complex, providing reasons to understand the characters even in their most questionable actions. Forsyth engages with the audience from beginning to end, and Milledgeâ€™s Adele is unforgettable.
The House of Bernarda Alba is a shocking play filled with symbolically loaded poetry. As a queer man, Lorca knew the torture of imposed silence too well. In his representation of domestic dictatorship, Bernardaâ€™s first and last word in the play is â€śsilence,â€ť highlighting her intransigence and abuse of power. This is precisely the starting point of Corneliusâ€™s evocative exploration of gender and power in the 21st century. And it is more timely than ever.
The House of Bernarda Alba is now on at the Arts Centre, Melbourne until July 7.