Review – The House of Bernarda Alba, Almeida Theatre

Tuesday 24 January 2012

“I wanted to rewind the first couple of minutes and see them again,” Andrew whined at the end of The House of Bernarda Alba. Not for the first time Phil wished Andrew would pay more attention to things.

But on this occasion, to be fair, THOBA does open with something of an unexpected coup de théâtre – a promising start indeed. Not only did it introduce the clever conceit that Bijan Sheibani‘s production has adopted but it grabbed the Whingers’ limited attentions instantly making them wonder if this brilliantly timed stunt was the work of theatrical illusionist Paul Kieve.

Emily Mann‘s version of Federico García Lorca‘s play has relocated the action from rural Spain to contemporary rural Iran. Islam is the new Catholicism. Or the old one. Or something.

Domineering Bernarda Alba has imposed the traditional eight year period of mourning on her house following the death of her husband. She has banned her five daughters from forming any sort of relationship and they are under a house arrest of sorts. But at least it limits their sartorial choices one must make of a morning, and who doesn’t look reasonably turned out and at their slimmest in black? Phil is thinking of introducing it for the Whingers.

The prolific Bunny Christie has come up trumps again creating a set that wouldn’t look lost in the Lyttelton auditorium, transforming the Almeida‘s playing area into something larger than it can possibly be.

Post Mr Alba’s funeral this area is impressively filled with a host of black-clad mourners (have they dressed up all the backstage staff?). In a rather long, location-setting ritual they file in almost endlessly in a scene which manages to be both spellbinding and slightly tedious: they enter slowly enough for you to count them all (nearly 30), check your watch as they are individually served tea, indulge in a bit of showy mourning, have their tea glasses collected, then file out each paying their respects to Bernarda. Indeed there’s so little dialogue you wonder how long it’s going to take them to get through the actual text. But, as your attention wanders you can indulge in a La Cage Aux Folles-chorus-in-reverse chance to scan the crowd and see if you can spot the man in drag.

Iranian American actress Shohreh Aghdashloo is an imposing and glamorous Bernarda (one of the few in the cast to keep Lorca’s original character name) wielding her cane like Maleficent in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. Despite a somewhat stilted delivery she has a charisma that makes her strangely mesmerising to watch. Jane Bertish is an excellent Darya and it’s always good to see WEW favourites Pandora Colin (Asieh) and Amanda Hale (Elmira) even if Act 2 is so crepuscularly lit (Jon Clark) that it’s often difficult to tell which daughter is which.

Jasmina Daniel makes a couple of brief appearances as BA’s Miss Haversham-ish ma. She appears to be far too young to be her mother giving the production the feel of a girl’s school annual play. The eldest daughter has received a proposal from the village hearthrob and is forced to do her courting through a window. Andrew declared that all the Whingers’ affairs of the heart should henceforth be conducted thusly, in the unlikely event that Cupid should ever stray their way again.

Despite the appearance of a vacuum cleaner and a sewing machine to pep up the Whingers’ interest some of it drags. It splutters into life all too infrequently and never quite manages to ratchet up the tension sufficiently, so it feels like a long haul to the interval which finally arrives at 1 hour 25 minutes. But it would be churlish (even for us) to depart with only 35 minutes left to go and miss the extra chill added to the ultimate tragedy which relocating the story adds.

But, along with our new courting procedures we are also inspired to wear burkas which might prove a refreshing alternative to our signature hand-in-front-of-face posturings and thus increase our romantic prospects in the process. So perhaps not an altogether wasted evening then.



4 Responses to “Review – The House of Bernarda Alba, Almeida Theatre”

  1. Miriam Says:

    One of my friends, who works at the Almeida in a non-acting capacity, has been one of the mourners, so I would assume that yes, they are all backstage staff!

  2. Whinger Fan Says:

    They also have a load of local young ‘uns, and various members of the ‘Almeida Young Friends’, volunteering as mourners.

    Totally agree about the set. The Almeida stage looks bigger than I could ever have imagined it could look!

  3. ja Says:

    Update. I must have seen it a day or so after the WEWs as it now 1 hr 50 mins without an interval. Much better though agree the opening scene is too long. I did speak with a programme seller and made this point afterwards, and she said they had actually cut the opening scene significantly in eliminating the interval.

  4. Oldand Active Says:

    We were both looking forward to this magnificent play. We had seen it independently about 20 years ago, but last night we were severely disappointed. Shohreh is far too chic and pleasant to play the old bastard Bernarda, and she did not project the oceanic feminine power vital to this play. BA is someone who sneers, spits venom, attacks, treats with contempt, rides an enormous ego, dominates, commands, humiliates, wounds, and finally rejoices in death, which even then must be on her terms. None of this came across. Early in the play, I said to my wife, ‘This is very weak.’

    We could not identify the daughters, or what they each stood for. Sitting in the circle, we could not see the left of the stage, so when the actors were there, we did not know who was speaking. This is a common and silly fault by directors, who do not sit in different parts of the auditorium when planning their production. They really should think of their paymasters–the audience. I say again for emphasis, this is just plain silly.

    It is sad to find fault, but the evening was more akin to a production at a girl’s school than a London theatre.

    Praise for Jane Bertish: by far the best on the stage.

    Despite disappointment, we continue to go frequently to plays, concerts, operas, galleries and museums in our support of the arts. We are lucky to be retired. Every evening adds to our knowledge and experience.

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