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The House of Bernarda Alba, National Theatre, review: a chilling, expletive-filled take on the evergreen Lorca classic

The House of Bernarda Alba: (bottom) Rosalind Eleazar (Angustias), (left) Thusitha Jayasundera (Poncia) and (right) Harriet Walter (Bernarda Alba)
The House of Bernarda Alba: (bottom) Rosalind Eleazar (Angustias), (left) Thusitha Jayasundera (Poncia) and (right) Harriet Walter (Bernarda Alba) - Marc Brenner

The house is the first thing to strike you in director-of-the-moment Rebecca Frecknall’s revival of Lorca’s evergreen classic. Half doll’s house, half mausoleum, it takes up almost every inch of the cavernous Lyttleton stage, save for those few metres of precious yard that contain the dreams of the five daughters imprisoned within, compelled to eight years of mourning by Harriet Walter’s stone-cold matriarch following the death of their father.

Bedrooms are both cells and tiny defiant spaces of freedom in which everything is visible. Sisters listen furtively at walls, knock back wine and admire themselves in their underwear. The oldest sister Angustias (Rosalind Eleazar), who is engaged to local pin-up Pepe El Romano, masturbates over his picture while leaning against her bed.

Lorca’s play has long proven itself an allegory easily transferable from 1930s fascist Spain to almost any patriarchal society at any point in history. Apart from the occasional tolling of a bell, Frecknall’s production floats free of cultural specifics to foreground the play as a horror show of the mind. The borders between the world outside and the one within are repeatedly blurred. Pepe usually never appears in the play – here, he dances with sinuous, almost impossible beauty across the yard, at one point appears from under the table in the dining room, and smooches with Adela (Isis Hainsworth), the youngest sister, at the gate.

When the village rises up, ravenous for the blood of an unmarried girl who has murdered her newborn baby, a mob bursts into the house, and, in Adela’s terrified imagination, grasps at her instead. These sequences – which hover between realism and hallucination – seem to taunt the girls almost into madness.

Walter gives the formidable, exacting performance you’d expect of an actress who has cornered the market in icily uncompromising women. As implacable and rigid as a church spire, she is both withered claw and shockingly fastidious in her cruelty. One question at the heart of Lorca’s play is the extent to which she symbolises the repressive puritanism of fascist Spain or has greatly amplified it within her house into being in some twisted act of self-vindication. Walter’s answer, in a performance full of nuance, is to suggest she is visiting on her daughters the same, self-denying, walled-up life imposed upon her as a child.

The House of Bernarda Alba, National Theatre
The House of Bernarda Alba, National Theatre - Marc Brenner

For while Birch is not the first playwright to cast Lorca’s play as a damning portrait of women’s collusion in their own oppression, her rangy, F-word-splattered adaptation has a stinging lack of piety. These five daughters are a bunch of poisoned, brutalised, treacherous snakes – they have, too, a rare toxic vitality. Most significant, and indeed brilliant, is Lizzie Annis’s Martirio, so consumed with envy and yearning she betrays the sister she loves the most.

This isn’t the finest hour for Cabaret director Frecknall – it’s hard to avoid melodrama with Lorca, and this production does often feel overwrought. Hainsworth, so excellent in Frecknall’s Romeo and Juliet, is a bit one-note. Yet the denouement is chilling: a tragedy brought against a group of women essentially by their own hands.


Until Jan 6. Tickets: 020 3989 5455; nationaltheatre.org.uk