Review: The House of Bernarda Alba (Radio 2014/ DVD 1991)

 “To be born a woman is the worst punishment” 

The ominous funeral bell tolling throughout the opening of this Radio 3 version of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba is a brilliant scene setter, and a telling reminder that so much of the world of this play is actually only ever heard making it ideal for radio adaptation. Fearsome matriarch Bernarda Alba has declared eight years of mourning after the death of her second husband and orders her daughters to remain barricaded inside the family home with her. The younger women bristle at the restraint, especially as the sounds of the world beyond their gate let them know what they’re missing, and the family trait for stubbornness proves enduringly tragic. 

Michael Dewell and Carmen Zapata’s translation sacrifices little of Lorca’s striking poetic imagery but impressively manages to keep a convincing colloquiality to the speech. It helps of course to have a strong cast – Siân Thomas’ Bernarda prickles with venom, Brigit Forsyth’s kindly housekeeper Poncia is achingly good and Kate Coogan and Elaine Cassidy as the oldest and youngest daughters battle excellently for the hand of a man and more importantly, for the freedom it represents. 

Conrad Nelson’s original score is beautifully atmospheric, especially in the moments when it uses the male chorus, so it seems an odd choice to intersperse more obviously “Spanish” music which shifts the mood somewhat. But there’s much to like about Pauline Harris’ production, which kicks off a set of radio productions of Lorca’s Rural Trilogy – Yerma and Blood Wedding to follow. 

And through the magic of YouTube, I also watched a 1991 television film version, adapted by Robert David MacDonald and directed by Stuart Burge and Núria Espert. I was keen to give it a go due to an intriguing cast list (it’s always great to see actors I love at earlier points in their career) but I wasn’t prepared for how genuinely fantastic it was going to be. 

Dark, broodingly oppressive and almost suffocatingly painful, it is a masterly version of the story. Glenda Jackson is magnificent as the fearsome Bernarda, silkily lethal in her absolute control and Joan Plowright’s Poncia has just enough steel to stick up for herself where she can. But getting to see Deborah Findlay’s hauntingly beautiful Martirio (ironically meant to be the plainest) and Amanda Root’s emotionally careless Adela is just a blessing,

Their climactic moment late on is just gorgeous, all the complexity of troubled sisterhood compressed into a scene of real pain and beauty which sets up the extraordinarily bleak finale perfectly, Jackson’s steely mask slipping for just one agonising moment before the shutters go up once again and condemn her household to repeat the endless vicious circle of misery she has determined for them. Highly recommended.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *