NOTE: The House of Bernarda Alba is staged bilingually at the Cervantes Theatre in Southwark, with an alternating cast for the English and Spanish performances. This is a review of a Spanish-language performance.
Lorca’s enduring tragedy, The House of Bernarda Alba, is both one of the playwright’s best-known pieces and one of Spanish drama’s most famous works. The Cervantes Theatre’s current staging, alternating between English and Spanish, is a powerful and deeply humane examination of the effects of ruling through oppression, as well as how unspent desire swiftly festers and toxifies.
Written in 1936, a year into the Francoist dictatorship in Spain, Lorca’s play unfolds in the aftermath of a house filled with woman, thrown into mourning by the death of the patriarch. The mother, the titular Bernarda Alba, imposes a strict eight-year mourning period on the already-oppressed daughters, further diminishing their chances of making meaningful contact with the outside world.
Jorge de Juan’s production succinctly captures the sense of oppression at the heart of the play. The air in the house is believably thick with heat and the pealing of funerary bells, and when Amparo Climent’s sonorous Bernarda Alba is on-stage, she somehow seems to physically swell to dominate the space.
But while it is Bernarda Alba’s house, it’s not necessarily her play. Lorca uses her presence sparingly, choosing instead to show us the effects of oppression through Bernarda’s five daughters. Tortured by the lack of stimulation, they turn inward and fight among themselves, vying for potential scraps of male attention. De Juan’s direction aptly captures the daughters’ suffering – divided by jealousy but unified by misery.
Among these, the standout is Maite Jauregui’s Adela, a role she plays in both the Spanish and English stagings. The youngest daughter, Adela represents the most willing resistance to Bernarda’s tyranny, but her unmarshalled passion threatens to spin out of control. Jauregui plays her as a woman on the cusp of an awakening to the injustices of the world – curious, sensitive, blazing. It’s a performance I will remember.
The remainder of the (all-female) cast provide able support, in particular Pia Laborde and Mayca Estevez, as a daughter lashed to a sewing machine and a servant crushed under the yoke of Bernarda Alba’s rampant classism, respectively.
This play is not a play that I wish resonated more strongly than ever, but unfortunately it does. As oppression seems to become the status quo in many ways around us, La Casa de Bernarda Alba serves as a potent metaphor for the crushing, dehumanising effects of fascist leadership, as well as a sincere reminder that when freed, the human heart may risk getting broken, but when held captive, it will surely turn to dust.