Times Literary Supplement / Arts click, scroll down
Blood Wedding (Almeida Theatre)
The House of Bernarda Alba (Lyttelton Theatre)
In adapting Blood Wedding, Lorca’s most elemental, least psychological play, writer Tanya Ronder and director Rufus Norris have drained much of the poetry from the text and transferred it to the physical stage; a red wooden backdrop is set against a pure white screen on which shadows flicker, growing increasingly menacing and engulfing as characters lose control. In contrast to this daring, experimental attempt to reunite Dali and Lorca, director Howard Davies’s naturalistic production of Lorca’s final play, The House of Bernarda Alba, strives to be a “photographic documentary”, as Lorca intended for it, a snapshot of the fascism that allows no escape from reality, not even into imaginative freedoms.
The shadows dancing, wrestling, disappearing throughout Blood Wedding often become more powerful players than the flesh-and-blood actors by whom they are cast. Director Rufus Norris, whose haunting Festen was first staged at the Almeida, has been typically adventurous in his much-hyped casting of the Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, star of The Motorcycle Diaries, as Leonardo, the play’s only named character. There is no doubting the intensity of Bernal’s portrayal of crazed erotic desire as he elopes with his former lover on her wedding day. He tries his best to make his eyes “like the barbed end of a thorn” whilst glaring at his much-suffering wife. However, his physical stage presence is comically dwarfed by the hapless, grinning groom. Leonardo’s superior emotional stature is wonderfully emphasised, but this love triangle never quite feels authentic.
Norris subverts expectations further by transforming the stage into a cultural melting pot, deliberately eschewing the rigid, insular homogeneity of a 1930s Spanish village. Paul Bhattacharjee gives a brisk performance as the bride’s father, his daughter is Icelandic (Thekla Reuten) and other actors are from Ireland, Holland, Portugal, Madagascar and Norway. Sound designer Paul Arditti weaves music in from all of these cultures and the cacophony of Englishes and discontinuity of acting styles can create a strange, disconcerting energy. The whole effect of the play is akin to watching an anti-logical dream unfold. Occasionally faltering, wooden performances, however, (the groom’s understated reaction at the elopement of his new bride, for example) break the illusion.
The play’s two symbols, Death and the Moon, are exaggerated from their brief parts in the original text. Daniel Cerqueira prowls the stage throughout as a careless, playful, ever-present Death, his back-to-front suit reflecting the topsy-turvy nature of a world in which people cannot marry those whom they truly love. The most controversial performance comes from the Moon, who rises out of the stage as a naked, glistening African woman, arms awkwardly suspended, to deliver anguished soliloquies. Her first appearance conjures the earthiness of peasant life, but both the Moon and Death haunt the stage one too many times and their power dissipates.
The size of the theatre well captures the raw emotions of characters who are confined within and struggling to be free of rigid societal structures, and achieves a splendid intimacy. Leonardo’s pregnant wife is tremendous in her rage at being abandoned as she furiously beats the stage. It is the mother’s performance, though, that welds the play’s disparate elements together, and her grief at the loss of a second son is breathtaking. Whereas Blood Wedding leaves the audience gasping for air and light, The House of Bernarda Alba fails to express such claustrophobia. The stage is flooded with bright light in an attempt to create the oppression of an “endless summer” in the “poisoned village” where five unmarried daughters struggle under the thumb of their fiercely authoritarian mother. However, we are never convinced that they are really sweltering in the fierce Spanish heat or in their own lust, consumed as they are supposed to be with sexual jealousy as the youngest sister Adela conducts an off-stage affair with Pepe el Romano, engaged though he is to the eldest sister, Angustias. Their more genteel displays of emotion lack the raw intensity of Norris’s Blood Wedding, but then, this is a house in which “not even a sign of a tear” is permitted.
What it lacks in intimacy the production compensates for in subtle acting which elucidates the psychological complexity of these relationships. Its greatest strength is in David Hare’s successful exploitation of the play’s “savage prison humour”. Bernarda’s cruel oppression of her daughters is formidably performed by Penelope Wilton who also manages to make us, on occasion, pity her. Whereas the comedy only ever feels superficial in Norris’s Blood Wedding, here, the humour is deeper, darker, always a hair’s breadth from tragedy as Bernarda beats her daughters with her hands, her cane, a fan, and chases after Pepe with a Cartier gun.
The dynamics between the five sisters are excellent as they clamour to express how “the greatest punishment is in being a woman”, from the jittery Amelia (Katherine Manners) to the lethargy of Magdalena (Justine Mitchell) to the wild writhing of Sally Hawkins’s Adela (“It’s my body to do as I wish”). But the punishment is most movingly captured by Bernarda’s mother (Cherry Morris) who totters onto the stage in the middle of the night in pink heels and a wedding dress, proclaiming that she is going to get married by the sea. Yet comedy tiptoes into pathos as she must return to her locked room.
Whereas Rufus Norris creates a sense that the most intimate reaches of the characters’ shadowy psyches are on full display, the power of Howard Davies’s production is in its off-stage presences; the screams of a pregnant girl being murdered; the bucking of a locked-up stallion; the absent presence of Pepe el Romano and all male characters; the incredibly chilling sound of Adela’s suicide. After Adela’s death, Bernarda demands “Silence” – her first and last word. Yet it is the language of this production, saturated with yearning and violence, which lingers longest, while of Blood Wedding, it is the visual; the blood staining the bridal dress, the engulfing shadows, the glistening Moon. Neither performance plucks out the whole heart of Lorca – a tremendous task for the British stage – but both, in their different ways, come tantalisingly closer to it.