FringeReview UK 2023
Adaptor Alice Birch takes the House apart like Rachel Whiteread’s sculpture. Birch and director Rebecca Frecknall offer something refractive and strange, with the set’s distance lending the silhouetted beetling figures a distance from us: a tragedy played out in a sadist’s petri-dish.
Harriet Walter though is magnificent: staring out like a jailor, patrolling, even in her room: Birch humanises her at the end, as if we’ll see a collapse of this house of cards. Isis Hainsworth, stunning as Hermia in Hytner’s Bridge Dream and recently as Juliet at the Almeida, is an actor who blazes extremes. This set’s recession slightly mutes her brilliance. Hainsworth remains though hypnotic and terrible, joyously sexual and headlong as Juliet in self-destruction.
Written by Frederico Garcia Lorca and written and adapted by Alice Birch, Directed by Rebecca Frecknall, Set and Costume Designer Merle Hensel, Choreographer and Movement Director Imogen Knight, Lighting Design Lee Curran, Composer Isobel Waller-Bridge, Sound Design Peter Rice, Fight Director Owain Gwynn, Intimacy Coordinator Ingrid Mackinnon,
Dramatherapist Patricia Ojehonmon, Casting Alastair Coomer CDG and Naomi Downham, Company Voice Work Cathleen McCarron and Tamsin Newlands, Staff Director Lilac Yosiphon, Producer Tracey Law, Dramaturg Nina Steiger, Production Manager Ben Arkell.
Till January 6th
“A daughter who disobeys is no longer a daughter. She becomes your enemy.” How might Lorca have pondered faithful, or not-so faithful adaptors? Probably with more warmth than his matriarch if that faith were a renewal.
Though publicity for Lorca’s final play The House of Bernarda Alba – opening at the National Theatre’s Lyttelton directed by Rebecca Frecknall for Playful Productions – shows Harriet Walter and Isis Hainsworth against a clichéd burnt orange, Merle Hensel’s set is different.
For good reason. Alice Birch’s name is ‘after’ Lorca’s. Yet adaptor Birch through Sarah Maitland’s translation is obliquely faithful – nothing like Simon Stone’s reinvention of Yerma in 2016.
Lorca’s 1936 tragedy prophesies the open prison Spain would become: after eliminating all that was progressive, desirous of self-expression. And Lorca prefigures his murder two months after finishing it.
Birch and Frecknall seem attuned to this sexually repressive Spain, violent for women and gay men like Lorca. This production pullulates with beatings against glass walls, women leaning out into hot night air to Isobel Waller-Bridge’s icily thrubbing score.
Hensel’s clinical eggshell-green towers on three storeys. That’s because linear narrative’s disrupted; narrative is simultaneous: the effect’s overwhelming and allows one of the finest of recent ensembles to flourish. It works superbly, allowing pent-up furies of a mother’s incarceration of five daughters to blow the roof off – or crumble into dust as their grandmother predicts. After her second husband’s death Bernarda Alba enforces an eight-year mourning: by the end, no daughter will be young enough to marry.
Birch – one of the UK’s most exciting dramatists – is famous for simultaneous narratives and brokenly expressive text: her playtexts are thus huge and this one’s a whopper. Even its format’s large and speaks the way Birch takes the House apart like Rachel Whiteread’s sculpture. That’s no surprise from one influenced by Martin Crimp and working with Katie Mitchell. Strangely the set’s colours distantly recall Birch’s 2017 Anatomy of a Suicide.
Birch’s Lorca explodes back into the poetry Lorca was moving away from increasingly in Blood Wedding and Yerma, as House released its narrative in prose. It’s nearly all there in the original: and Birch – fracturing dialogue and snapping syllables – intensifies verbal colour to thrash and writhe against this bleached world. In this sense rebellious youngest daughter Adela (Isis Hainsworth) blazes vividly against the onyx of Bernarda Alba (Harriet Walter).
The one false note is a spraying of f-words: even Bernarda Alba. That makes no sense, historically or structurally. Had it been confined to some characters when out of earshot, an illicit language, it could have been strikingly effective. But its pervasive use democratises the play’s exchanges: and vitiates the power – and structure – of Bernarda Alba’s pronouncements.
Walter though is magnificent: staring out like a jailor, patrolling, even in her room: Birch humanises her at the end, as if we’ll see a collapse of this house of cards. Hainsworth, stunning as Hermia in Hytner’s Bridge Dream and recently as Juliet at the Almeida, is an actor who blazes extremes. This set’s recession slightly mutes her brilliance. Hainsworth remains though hypnotic and terrible, joyously sexual and headlong as Juliet in self-destruction.
After the set-piece post-funeral, mourners departing, new sanctions start rebellion. The youngest at 20, Adela writhes against them. The eldest at 39, Angustias (Rosalind Eleazar) is left a dowry by her own father, the first husband, has been (a telling touch) abused by the second, is now courted by 25-year-old Don Juan Pepe El Romano (normally offstage but here a rippling James McHugh); who clearly desires her dowry.
This Angustias has even less time and loyalty for others. In truth newly-onstage Pepe desires Adele and they’ve embarked on an illicit affair, consummated in this production through locked gates with striking intimacy coordinaton by Ingrid Mackinnon.
Adele’s not the only one, leaning out in her underwear as Angustias masturbates on her bed only to have her makeup viciously scrubbed by Bernarda: even on the brink of marriage she obeys. Adela’s once closest sister disabled Martirio (Lizzie Annis, playing more pathos than revenge) also desires Pepe, and realises it’s no use, even after having stolen his portrait from Angustias (leading to a horrific scalding punishment). She resorts to the surveillance her mother uses.
Pepe’s chosen two daughters for different reasons. Poncia (Thusitha Jayasundera, coiled, releasing confidences bit by bit) tells Adele to wait – at 39 Angustias will soon die in childbirth. That’s the most compassion anyone shows anyone, as Poncia confers with her only equal Maid (Bryony Hannah).
Conciliatory Amelia (Eliot Salt) swigs wine secretly, seemingly most resigned. Magdelena (Pearl Chanda) is a gifted seamstress but holds her gift back.
Most subversive is Bernarda’s incarcerated mother, Maria Josefa (Eileen Nicholas) a study in wickedly funny disinhibition. Though senile Maria Josefa speaks truth at every turn, descending in her wraith-white bridal dress, wishing to marry by the sea, curling up cloth babies. Despite being forcibly injected, at Act Two’s climax, unseen, she climbs out of a window.
An eggshell-green open prison opens on three storeys, pretending to be a doll’s house. It’s period-detailed but monochrome show two upper levels of eight bedrooms connected by a back staircase, each with bed and crucifix, and three lower rooms: two small ones on the ground floor open to the kitchen where most action takes place. Even the surrounding wrought-iron gates are eggshell. The only departure is black mourning, a single green dress, white shifts, and a rifle, prominent above the stove. Despite the bright look, Lee Curran’s lighting casts us into liminal gloaming: it sometimes flicks from light incarnadine making the green one red.
The house is twice punctured by outsiders: The first is Act Two’s climax where the Bloodied Woman (Imogen Mackie Walker) flees from a lynch-mob having murdered her illegitimate baby. She makes instinctively for Adele who exchanges a desolate understanding (could Adele be pregnant by this time?) in fight director Owain Gwynn’s electrifying take on horror sprayed on the kitchen table.
In the next scene the wrongly-named Prudencia (Marcia Lecky) gossips maliciously, but whose presence somehow speeds tragedy.
There’s memorable ensemble work with choreographer/movement director Imogen Knight with Catharine Humphrys, Asha Kingsley, Michael Naylor, Celia Nelson, Ellouise Shakespeare-Hart, Georgia Silver, Charlotte Workman.
I missed David Hare’s 2007 National version. Birch and Frecknall offer something more refractive and strange, with the set’s distance lending the silhouetted beetling figures a distance from us: a tragedy played out in a sadist’s petri-dish. Nevertheless Walter, Hainsworth and others break surface to make this freshly appalling, something out of Goya: a mother and country eating her own children.