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House of Bernarda

by on 27 January 2022

Integrity of Emotions

House of Bernarda

by Margaret Lawless after Federico Garcia Lorca 

Putney Theatre Company at the Putney Arts Theatre until 29th January

Review by Claire Alexander

I had a personal interest in going to see this production.  Several years ago, I was in a production of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba – as the eldest daughter, Angustias (but more of that later), and I know the play well.   I must confess I have always found it a somewhat difficult play to follow, with five daughters vying for the same man’s attention (Johnny) under the jealous and distrustful eye of their mother Bernarda.   There always seems to be a tension between making the story really clear and listening to Lorca’s evocative and beautiful writing. 

But this version entitled House of Bernarda and adapted by Margaret Lawless for Putney Arts Theatre was inspired and fell into none of those traps.  Margaret has chosen to set her play in the American South Midwest as hot, remote, and socially divisive as is the original set in rural Spain.    She has kept faith and true to the original text, such that there were many lines and references I recognised, and the same arc of storyline.   But she has also found a careful balance between this and adapting to the southern American drawl and American cultural references.  Thus the text never jarred and always felt grounded in this setting. 

And the plot and story, dealing as it does with the universal themes and conflicts of jealousy desire and repression translate perfectly to a remote ranch house surrounded by American ‘hillbillies’ that were not considered ‘good enough’ for Bernarda’s long suffering daughters. 

Margaret has simplified the story slightly by reducing the daughters to four not five.  Angustias, the one I played all those years ago was the one omitted, at least on paper, but it is the least written of the four and actually I recognised many of her lines and motivations in the others, especially Marta.   

And this version also really speaks to us in following the hopes and fantasies of the four daughters as they all dream of a future beyond the claustrophobic walls of the ranch and their tyrant mother.   Into this heady mix are the all-seeing housekeeper, Grace, and the maid, Harper, who provide some balance, narrative and reality to the situation. 

One of the things I really liked about this version was that it brings out the motivations of all four daughters so clearly – from jealous Marta, who harbours a secret and guilty love for Johnny herself;  distant Madeleine, who has inherited all the money from her father (and Bernarda’s first husband) and is actually the one who is engaged to Johnny;  sickly dreamy Amelia whom one suspects is the one Johnny really loves (and that the feeling is mutual);  to temptress Adele, with the fearlessness and naivety of youth.   I will not go any further for fear of spoiling the second act for those of you that do not know the inevitable tragedy. 

But a text is only as good as the performers, and here Putney have struck gold with committed and truthful performances from everyone who ultimately achieve a really ensemble feel and a sense of the heat and boredom.   I would not want to single out any of the daughters (Zoe Spencer as Madeleine, Katy Jackson as Marta, Verity Hayes as Amelia and Victoria Hoover as Adela), suffice to say they all provided us with honest and sensitive characterisation.   Melissa Reddin as Grace and Freya Finnerty as Harper respectively are assured and confident as they provide the reality to the situation.  I would have liked both to be a little more ‘rough round the edges’ but these are difficult roles to execute as they both are and aren’t part of the co-dependency with the rest of the family.    Sharon Cuzack and Julez Hamilton (as Evelyn and Joan respectively) also offer us colour and a brief glimpse of the outside world in well studied performances, with just the right hint of lightness of touch to provide a contrast to Bernarda’s world.   In the title role, Amanda Benzecry is powerful in the way she leads the house with a rod of iron.  There was a sense that she starts at 100% and has nowhere to go but there are brief glimpses of the vulnerability and the ‘rivers of blood’ final speech was chilling.     

One of the most creative additions to this production was the visualisation of all of the daughter’s dreams about Johnny into dance.   This was brilliantly conceived and is not in the original where Johnny is a shadowy figure in our imaginations.   The dances were beautifully and sensitively performed with Chris Cully as Johnny and all the daughters in turn, but special mention must go to Amelia’s (Verity Hawes) dance which concludes the first half.  Dance says so much more than words.   

The set and lighting in their simplicity was absolutely right and allowed us to concentrate on the unfolding tragedy.  The stage was well used and certainly gave us that feeling of the remote, both physically and emotionally.   

I therefore really congratulate director Jerome Joseph Kennedy and everyone involved on such a memorable and honest production performed with such integrity.   And a male director dealing so sensitively with such female themes.   But this is a story that translates to so many cultures, faiths and communities and it was refreshing to see such a version translated with such depth.    And it even found some lovely resonances with the restrictions and distrust we have all endured over the last two years. 

Whether you know the play or not you I urge you to see it. 

PS I would have liked a short biog on Amanda Lawless in the programme.   

Claire Alexander, January 2022

Photography by Cait Hart Dyke

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