It’s tempting to mistakenly date Federico Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba around the time of Chekhov’s similarly themed 1901 masterpiece, Three Sisters. In fact, its history is a more recent one – written in 1936 but not performed until 1945, and owing to copyright problems with foreign translations, not seen professional in London until 1973.
Two months after completing House, Lorca was murdered by supporters of Franco “for being a queer”. As with his death, the sexual and political also lay equally strong claims to his last play. While not overtly homosexual, the cruel denial of women’s natural desires provides parallels with the “love that dare not speak its name”. At the same time, the iron rod rule of the household makes a meaty metaphor for the oncoming fascist dictatorship of General Franco.
Both forms of repression and oppression are drawn out in Howard Davies’ fine production of David Hare’s fluid new translation. It’s ironic that it’s left to three men – Davies, Hare and, of course, Lorca himself – to convey the confined world of women, but they do so with assurance. And perhaps it’s not so ironic given that so much of this world is defined by the unseen influence of men – their voices often heard in the distance, singing as they work in the field, baying for blood as they hound a fallen woman from the village.
But it’s a strong cast of women alone that we actually see on stage. Penelope Wilton - only occasionally, but tellingly, allowing her character’s mask to slip - plays the widow of the title who, after the death of her second husband, clamps down harder on her five spinster daughters. It’s her duty, she believes, to protect the family’s honour and marginally wealthy status from unworthy suitors or other forms of disgrace.
Though her self-interestedly faithful servant Ponzia (a superbly controlled Deborah Findlay) tries to warn her, Bernarda’s plans to “beat them into submission” are thwarted by her daughters’ and the object of their collective passions, one Pepe el Romano. To the misfortune of all, he engages the eldest, Angustias (an appropriately ungainly Sandy McDade), for her inheritance; beds the youngest, Adela (spirited Sally Hawkins, resisting any attempts to “put out the fire between my legs”), for her beauty; and inspires bitter jealousy in the ugliest, Martirio (watchful Jo McInnes).
If there’s a problem with the production, it’s that Vicki Mortimer’s Spanish villa set, with its open courtyard, feels rather too airy for the claustrophobic nature of Lorca’s piece. But when the dramatic, and meteorological, heat is turned up in the third act, the walls and the world still seem to close in on these wailing women. Riveting.