For November, Leitheatre presents Federico Garcia Lorca’s renowned play The House of Bernarda Alba, translated by Jo Clifford and directed by Colin Peter. As one of the three annual plays performed by the amateur Edinburgh based company, Leitheatre’s presentation of Lorca’s controversial piece is pacy and is anchored by a strong all-female cast.
Set in 1936, in a small village in rural Spain, The House of Bernarda Alba tells the story of a female household under the control of its domineering matriarch, Bernarda Alba. After the death of her husband, she boards up the windows and doors, and resigns her daughters to sewing in mourning for 8 years. What follows is a pressure-cooker environment of high emotions, heat, sexuality and sisterly quarrels.
The company’s production is true to the play’s context, and set and costume designed by Derek Blackwood and Effie Robertson, while simple, effectively plunges the audience into early 20th century Spain. From the beginning, we are aware of the close and incredibly hot weather, adding to the growing fever and pressure of the household. The bare walls feel too close for comfort, and it is hard to grasp a sense of time passing.
What stands out from Leitheatre’s production is the incredibly strong performances by the cast. Special mention should go to Irene Cuthbert, who’s portrayal as Bernarda herself is consistently domineering and poker-faced. Cuthbert’s performance is a testament to Lorca’s character; she creates a fearful shadow throughout the household, and her presence permeates the stage, even when she is not present. Nicole Irvine’s Adela, provides a defiant contrast to the matriarch of the piece. Her performance is youthful and incredibly engaging. We fully see both her naivety and longing to be independent, and Irvine’s version heightens Adela’s personal emotional turmoil and eventual tragedy.
For such a tragic story, which begins and ends with death, Leitheatre sometimes bring a humorous edge to the script, creating light and dark. That being said, it is hard to know whether this is intentional, or just a by-product of the sometimes ludicrous and frenzied script. The company occasionally dips into hysteria, which does unfortunately temporarily detract from the seriousness of the piece. A couple of times, a line prompt was needed, and this was distracting – however, the cast did well to quickly grab our attention again, and bring us back to the plot; it was soon forgotten.
Overall, Leitheatre’s performance is solid and true to script. The enjoyment of the company in performing such an interesting and varied script is clear, and to see such a strong all-female cast is unfortunately, a rare, but nonetheless incredibly empowering experience. The themes of the piece, including the suppression of female sexuality and the difficulty women experience when coming-of-age in a patriarchal society is a very real presence in this version of The House of Bernarda Alba. Jo Clifford writes “As a gay man, Lorca was unable to express his own sexuality. As a trans woman, I was denied expression of my own identity and I can see the close resemblance between the society Lorca was describing and our own”. Certainly, Leitheatre’s production is successful in mirroring the issues which surround women, gender and sexuality which still prevail today, after all these years.