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A CurtainUp London Review
The House of Bernarda Alba
by Tim Macavoy
We’ve already had a puppet play in Farsi, a relocation to Pakistan and. . . a musical. British-Iranian director Bijan Sheibani, and cross-cultural writer Emily Mann take the grand themes of tragedy, women’s rights and reputation and drop them into modern Iran.
Tyrannical matriarch Bernarda rules over her five daughters, her mother and housekeeper, imposing an eight year period of mourning after the death of her second husband. The sisters – aged between 20 and 39 – cannot leave the house, and must be content in peering through cracks in the door, staring out of windows, and planning for the wedding of the oldest, wealthiest sibling. No man is good enough for Bernarda’s family and she actively dissuades suitors from courting at their windows. Bernarda is more concerned with the status her wealth brings her and the reputation her family has amongst the town than the happiness of her own daughters.
The stage is populated by women only, with one male lover driving much of the drama offstage - adding to the alluring mystery of the outside world. Bernarda’s opening and closing lines are “silence”, which is how she would like things to remain until they all decay, except that passion in young women is hard to control, and when crushed will inevitably lead to tragedy.
The intimate Almeida stage is cloaked in darkness, as a solitary white figure stands vulnerably lit in front of the audience. She swoops a dark hijab around her body so that only a ghostly face remains, and as she draws it across her face, disappears completely. It’s a striking start that fills you with confidence, and reminded me that at the time Lorca was writing this, women were being forcibly liberated from their hijabs in 1930s Iran, leading to an impressive increase in female participation across all strata of society, a ruling attitude that was sadly reversed after the ’79 revolution.
As the script kicks in it’s clear that cultural analogies are largely left to the observer. Setting is created by Dashti songs, prayer, costume and changes to the characters’ names, but specific political commentary is scant beyond that already present in Lorca’s original. It could almost have been a Spanish play performed in Iran, rather than reset there, which speaks highly of the broad appeal this play has. In any place where love is not allowed to blossom, Lorca argues, ugliness will prevail – both outside and in. In this sense it is universal enough to be played anywhere, even if Lorca was inspired by the troubles in Spain, and the restrictions he had from being with the man he loved.
Iranian-born Shohreh Aghdashloo takes the title role, perhaps best known for her Oscar nominated role in House of Sand and Fog. Her voice is sultry and her features soft, making her an unlikely choice for the megalomaniacal Bernarda. While her performance is never boring, she has clearly tried to humanise the mother in a way that gains audience sympathy, but detracts from the oppressive nature of the play as a whole. We never quite believe it when she strikes her daughters with her iconic walking stick, and she certainly doesn’t seem like someone who would cheer on a stoning.
The daughters struggle to make their identities distinct; Pandora Colin as the eldest, Asieh, feels the most bruised by her time under Alba’s rule, but some of the younger sisters fall into petulance. Ironically, Jane Bertish as the more kindly Darya is the only one to convincingly pull off acidic, while Jasmina Daniel’s night-stalking grandmother is very stagey and just. . ..odd.
Sheibani’s direction has some moments that are visually impressive – the swarm of women that come to show their respect and pray at the opening of the play stands out – but it’s short lived as the actors then have to rely on moving from chair to chair to get them through dense dialogue. It seems that maybe the tone of the production was made too reserved, rather than oppressed, so that by the end of 90 minutes the audience doesn’t really have any emotional response to the tragic conclusion, because we feel like we haven’t shared anything. Unfortunately the applause was as limping as Bernarda.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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