I do love me some actresses, and I always get a thrill when I hear the words ‘all-female cast’ so I was very much inclined to book for The House of Bernarda Alba at the National Theatre. A new version by David Hare has been commissioned of Lorca’s classic (I say classic, I’ve never read it…) which bemoaned the way in which women were treated at the time but hinted metaphorically at his own repressed homosexuality and the increasingly oppression that brought about Franco’s rule.
Set in 1930s Spain in a stunningly mounted (by Vicki Mortimer) palace of an Andalusian house, the Alba household is mourning the death of matriarch Bernarda’s husband but the actual feeling is one more akin to liberation as it turns out she relishes the chance to take control of the family, of her five unmarried daughters, and maintain the staunchly Catholic ethos of sexual repression despite the natural urges of her girls.
For there’s a man, there’s always a man, who becomes engaged to the eldest (and ostensibly the ugliest) as she inherits much of her father’s wealth. But jealous of her potential escape from the household through marriage, two other sisters also fall for the same gentleman, one of them even allowing him to deflower her and the explosive consequences result in tragic ends.
As the five daughters, Sandy McDade, Justine Mitchell, Katherine Manners, Jo McInnes and Sally Hawkins were all excellent, evoking a lifetime of simmering resentments and sibling rivalries with their acting and particularly with their heavily weighted silences and as the girls with perhaps the most to lose, McDade as the eldest and Hawkins as the youngest really were exceptional.
But it is Penelope Wilton as the vicious, stick-wielding Bernarda, as much a damaged product of the society as anyone else, but a darkly dominant force, determined to protect the family’s reputation even if it means tearing the family apart from inside by closing her eyes and ears to the power of emotions like love, lust and jealousy. Deborah Findlay as her servant/confidante matches Wilton well, trying in vain to warn her, but ultimately serving her mistress.
But though the sense of devastating tragedy is never far away, what makes this production directed by Howard Davies so engaging is the humour that is laced through so much of the play. The strained family relations chime with recognisably human moments, beautifully played by this excellent cast, and making me wish there were more opportunities for all-female casts to impress so much as they do here.