Lloyd Evans Lloyd Evans

What a muddle: The House of Bernarda Alba, at the Lyttelton Theatre, reviewed

Plus: a play at the Bush Theatre that violates the cardinal rule that no disabled person may be teased or humiliated

Needlessly complicated: Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba at the National Theatre. Credit: Marc Brenner

Green, green, green. Everything on stage is the same shade of eau de Nil in the NT’s version of Federico García Lorca’s classic, The House of Bernarda Alba. All the furniture and props are green. The mirrors, the walls, the crucifixes, the clocks and even the bucket and the knife-rack bear the same queasy pigment. The idea, perhaps, is to suggest a lunatic asylum or an NHS waiting room.

Lorca’s steamy tale is set in a remote Spanish village in the 1930s where life is dominated by the repressive and superstitious Catholic church. The story opens with a nasty matriarch, Bernarda Alba, celebrating her husband’s death by ordering her five unmarried daughters to spend the next eight years indoors, doing embroidery. No visitors are allowed. No excursions are permitted – except to Sunday mass, where even a glance at a male parishioner is forbidden. Bernarda Alba’s decree is half-tragic, half-farcical and the script usually develops into a tense family thriller as the daughters rise up against their freakish, domineering mother. Here, the drama is ill-focused and needlessly complicated.

The captive daughters keep undressing, constantly. No idea why

The Lyttelton’s overlarge playing area has been mishandled by the director, Rebecca Frecknall, who wants to fill every available inch of space with stage business. The main action unfolds in a cramped downstairs room which is surmounted by two storeys of dormitory cubicles where the captive daughters spend their evenings alone. They’re seen masturbating, drinking stolen wine, or sniffing the garments of imaginary lovers. They undress, constantly. Every few minutes they tug off their sombre black daywear and climb into fluffy white pyjamas. No idea why. One of the sisters gets into a bath fully clothed and then removes her damp garments and puts on her nightie.

There’s no purpose to these solitary mime-shows. It’s like watching a set of actors learning to juggle in separate padded cells.

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