Review: The House of Bernarda Alba, National Theatre

Harriet Walter heads an astonishing ensemble in a jagged take on The House of Bernarda Alba at the National Theatre

“You bring such scandal to my house”

We’re often quick to criticise institutions such as the National Theatre when they tend to the male, pale and stale and if clearly there’s still work to be done on at least one of these, it is gratifying to see all three auditoria there female-focused for the festive season. Between The Witches, Infinite Life and The House of Bernarda Alba, all are written or co-written by women, with two also directed by them too. Worth pointing out I think.

For The House of Bernarda Alba, Alice Birch is credited as playwright, with a new “radical version” of Federico García Lorca’s 1936 play, and so the pairing with director Rebecca Frecknall seems entirely appropriate, Frecknall making her NT debut after some phenomenally successful reinventions of classic plays (qv Cabaret, A Streetcar Named Desire and Summer and Smoke). All with a company headed up by the marvellous Harriet Walter – truly an embarrassment of riches.

As a stunningly stylised reworking of the play, it is an undoubted success as Merle Hensel’s design gives us a bird’s eye view into every room of this all-female household, five daughters locked up under their mother’s baleful gaze as they mourn the death of their father. At some times, our attention is pulled in multiple places as scenes play out concurrently; at others, things slow right down as movement dominates to haunting effect.

At the same time, there’s little sense of context, the play’s original setting of 1930’s Andalucía isn’t replaced with anything per se, a vagueness which isn’t a particular strength. Fortunately, the recurring theme of hurt people hurt people is evergreen, the cyclical nature of this cruelty breathtaking at times even as the religious patriarchy weighs down so heavily on them all. Tradition rules but even there, Birch has a little fun as she has everyone swear a f*cktonne.

Walter is natually phenomenal, hollowed out by a grief that has turned toxic but still showing flickers of maternal concern in amongst the control she metes out. Rosalind Eleazar and Isis Hainsworth impress as the eldest and youngest daughters, both differently entangled by the delicious Pepe, Lizzie Annis also excellent as the embittered Martirio. And as servants to the house, Thusitha Jayasundera and Bryony Hannah are compelling to watch too.

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