“They are women without men, that’s all”
The list of actresses whom I adore is forever growing and changing but certain women remain constant on it, and one of them – who I never thought I would get to see on stage – is Shohreh Aghdashloo. She completely broke my heart in the film House of Sand and Fog (for which she was Oscar-nominated) and then toyed with our loyalties with a brilliant duplicitous turn in series 4 of 24. So when she was announced as taken on the titular role in the Almeida’s new version of The House of Bernarda Alba, I was ecstatic.
Emily Mann’s adaptation relocates Lorca’s Spanish story to rural Iran and changes a few of the names, but largely keeps the architecture of the play intact (although compressed into 95 minutes here). It is a relocation which is extremely successful, the oppression and repression of female sexuality sadly fitting in as easily here as in Catholic Spain and class issues are common across the world, making this a powerfully affecting, beautifully staged and haunting production that lived up to my every expectation.
The first time I saw Bijan Sheibani direct was at the National with the exceptional Our Class which won me over completely and marked him out as a director to watch out for. His subsequent efforts though have tested my patience: Greenland was a hodge-podge of ideas; Moonlight brought new meaning to the term soporific for me; and though The Kitchen had much balletic grace about it, it all felt, well a little pointless. So I was a little intrigued to see whether which side of him would emerge in Bernarda Alba. Thankfully, my fears were allayed within the first minute with one of the most gorgeous opening images I think I’ve seen in a theatre, I’ll say no more than I am seriously considering going again just to see the shimmering veil of silk one more time…
But beautiful images aside, and this is a production filled with them – Sheibani’s eye for the visual is superb, the swathe of burqa-clad mourners, the jolt of the green dress, a family dinner of great tension – there’s a clear-sightedness to the direction, a deep understanding of the key issues of the play that is transmitted throughout. The device of the camera flash that is used sparingly during the show, reveals crucial unspoken truths and concealed emotions to devastating effect and Jon Clark’s lighting and Dan Jones’ sound design are both deployed with a similar restraint which makes them all the more evocatively powerful.
And then there’s the acting. Aghdashloo’s voice alone is enough to make me weak at the knees, the very definition of mellifluous, but allied here to a performance of vicious matriarchy and dictatorial obsessiveness that destroys the very thing it seeks to protect. She’s a thoroughly believable monster, a woman who still possesses enough glamour to make one believe she would never accept a shepherd in the family and who exudes enough danger to ensure her will is (mostly) obeyed. Jane Bertish’s Darya plays off this perfectly as the housekeeper who serves as the maternal figure in the household and the person who can come closest to challenging Bernarda with her hard-earned wisdom. And in the bevy of daughters, Pandora Colin finds great dignity as the middle-aged Asieh (Angustias) who is finally given the chance of freedom with an unexpected proposal, Amanda Hale finds a disturbing physicality as the wretched Elmira (Martirio) whose inability to deal with her emotions causes so much pain, Sarah Solemani makes a wise Maryam (Magdalena) and Hara Yannas’ Adela is sensational as the wild spirit that will not be tamed by anything, fully aware of her body, her sensuality and unafraid to show it, regardless of the consequences.
Going to the theatre with expectations of a play is a tricky thing indeed, especially one that I’ve seen and really enjoyed before – at the National Theatre with Penelope Wilton and last year’s musical version at the Union – but I’m only human and I had set this up as one of the things I was most looking forward to seeing this year. Those preconceptions aside, I can honestly say that this was a simply superb production of The House of Bernarda Alba: an adaptation that truly works without endless retweaking or contrivances, a gorgeous aesthetic as demonstrated by Sheibani’s direction and Bunny Christie’s highly effective set, and emotionally devastating acting across the board, led by Aghdashloo’s iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove of a voice. A definite must-see.