Four women engaged in laundry work occupy the acting area as the audience takes its seats. We are in the Basque country in the late 1950s with Franco still weighing down Spain. Gender roles are well defined in this society; you step outside them at your peril, just as adhering to anything other than the Nationalist political line invites swift and grisly retribution.
Young Mikel (Roger Ribo) doesn’t quite fit in. Mari (Fran Moulds) likes him and Mikel’s mother (Miren Alcala) approves of this potential daughter-in-law. His father (Javier Lavin) is happy to encourage his son towards masculine maturity. But a stranger arrives – Inigo Ortega as Iñaqui – and Mikel’s life unravels.
Certain Dark Things has been devised by its international cast with direction by Emily Watson Howes. The staging is deceptively simple with the women’s work giving them the opportunity to function as a participating chorus – such communal activity being at once liberating and confining. Offstage, the cast provides a range of effective sound effects, including Seirol Davies’s hypnotic cello obbligato.
There’s a certain echo of Lorca in the play, natural enough given that it deals with a largely closed community for its first half. In the second act Mikel returns home with a smart wife, Julia (Antonia Mellows). This lays some ghosts to rest but the past is engrained in the very stones of his parents’ apartment block. There is no real escape.
The acting throughout is of a very high order, with Alcala in particular giving a rounded and ultimately very moving portrait of a woman striving for the best for her menfolk. Moulds and Mellows offer a contrasted pair of young women, the former naïve and the latter less sophisticated than she appears. I felt that Iñaqui should have a little more dark charisma than Ortega affords him but the blend of strengths and weaknesses inherent in both father and son comes over from Lavin and Ribo.