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The House of Bernarda Alba

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
The House of Bernarda Alba, National Theatre, 2023
Photo: Marc BrennerHarriet Walter

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Harriet Walter stars in this monolithic, disorientating take on the Lorca classic

Harriet Walter is the face on the poster. But the triumph in this new version of the Frederick Garcia Lorca classic belongs to the women behind the scenes.

In her first new stage work since the pandemic, the toweringly gifted playwright Alice Birch has spliced Lorca’s original with some of the radical stylings of her 2017 masterpiece ‘Anatomy of a Suicide’. In the overwhelming first half, we’re effectively watching multiple storylines unfold all at once, in multiple locations, almost more than our brains can process.

The canvas is provided by designer Merle Hensel, who has produced an astonishing structure for the titular house, a vast institutional block that swallows the entirety of the Lyttelton stage. It looks halfway between a hotel and a prison – but not, crucially, a home – with the two top floors divided into cell-like bedrooms and the bottom given over to a living room, kitchen, and high metal fences that separate the house from the world. 

Finally – although a lot of other very talented people are involved – there’s Rebecca Frecknall. Having made her name at the Almeida and via the West End’s ‘Cabaret’, this is her NT debut and she has absolutely gone for it with the boost in budget and space.

Simply credibly directing the early stages of Birch’s script is achievement enough: much of the first half feels less like a story, more of a trip. But this is a production charged with the loneliness and eroticism of the night, as widowed matriarch Bernarda Alba (Walter) runs her home like a dictatorship.

Her numerous daughters – bound to a tyrannical, years-long period of mourning following the death of their father – strain at the bit, their repressed desires inflamed by fleeting glimpses of hunky local boy Pepe (a silent-but-stacked James McHugh)). In the first sequence we see a bewildering panorama of gossip, anger, madness and desire as numerous small stories unfold at the same time.

It’s only at the end of the half that the plot snaps into focus and becomes more conventional, dealing with a single storyline. Angustias (Rosalind Eleazar), the older daughter who has inherited the bulk of her late father’s wealth, is now engaged to Pepe and distraught that her photo of him has gone missing. It’s soon discovered that her younger sister Martirio (Lizzie Annis) had the image; Walter’s Alba metes out a brutal punishment but is blind to the fact that Martirio didn’t just take it as a prank: she is in love with Pepe, and so too is youngest daughter Adela (Isis Hainsworth).

The fundamentals of Lorca’s play remain strong: it’s a powerful parable about the dangers of policing female desire, that also serves as an allegory for the inevitable failure of totalitarian systems. 

If Walter doesn’t get quite as much time to shine as she might in a more trad version, she’s still superb: an icy asset manager rather than a caring mother, who rules her little empire with an iron fist while lacking the humanity to understand why its collapse is inevitable. Although the decision to have her speak with a clipped, vaguely Mediterranean accent when everyone else just goes for ‘English’ feels a bit odd, it also sort of works: she is other to her children. A steely, elemental being at the peak of her powers and the end of her reign.

Hainsworth, so excellent in Frecknall’s recent ‘Romeo & Juliet’ is given the biggest opportunity to let rip and show off her acting chops, and Annis - the best thing about last year’s Amy Adams-starring West End ‘The Glass Menagerie’ also impresses as the sadder, softer Martirio.

Ultimately, though, they’re just cogs in the house.

It is a truly awesome spectacle, and a monumental shift in tone from Frecknall, whose work has always previously felt intimate and warm - always underpinned by a sense of her characters’ decency. This is monolithic and harsh, with the decency of individuals simply lost in the whole: warm pebbles of humanity thrown into a freezing ocean of society.

It’s also frustrating that it doesn’t rationalise its two parts. The play is a sort of confrontational art experiment for 45 minutes that then settles into something much more conventional. It leaves the first half slightly extraneous, like a souped-up prologue, and leaves the evening feeling unbalanced: here’s an extraordinary power in this adaptation, but it’s not always fully tapped into.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski


£20-£89. Runs 2hr 20min
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