Arts: Theatre: Virgins on the verge

WATCHING THE English attempt to perform the work of the great Spanish dramatist, Garcia Lorca, you often feel that you now know what it would be like to observe John Gielgud, say, at the snorting, bloodlusting climax of a bullfight or Penelope Keith in the throes of lending tempestuous flesh to Carmen. That goes for allegedly first-rate productions, too. In the late Eighties, London raved over a staging of The House of Bernarda Alba, starring Glenda Jackson and Joan Plowright but, to my mind, it brought you nearer to the intellectual froideur of the fjords than to the instinctual heat of Andalusia: Ibsen in Spanish fancy dress.

Polly Teale's new production of the play for Shared Experience surmounts this problem better than most. True, there are one or two flat-out mistakes. Having characters peruse newspapers with headlines like "Franco Avanca", in type large enough for the near-blind to decipher, is the risible equivalent of the proverbial boy-vendor in musicals shouting: "Extra! Extra!" But in terms of pervasive atmosphere, Teale's account succeeds in conjuring up a genuinely powerful sense of the play's stifling all-female household, with its black-garbed mourning rituals, its curdled virginity, suppressed hysteria and amateury rivalries over the local stud, who is betrothed for her money to one sister, forlornly lusted after by another and having clandestine carnal frolics with Amanda Drew's tauntingly aroused and impulsive Adela.

Trailing her stick behind her over the floor like a grating auditory reminder of who is boss, Sandra Duncan's grim-faced, formidable Bernarda is a matriarch fit to terrify any of the warders on Cell Block H. But the actress also lets you see the personal price this woman has paid. A fierce proponent of the hateful Spanish "honour" culture where what you are entirely depends on what your neighbours think of you, Bernarda has retreated into the kind of removed arrogance that is little better than being buried alive. "I was born with my eyes wide open," she proclaims in Rona Munro's vivid translation, "And now I shall see without blinking till the day I die." Duncan, though, shows you a proud, circumspect woman whose tragedy is that she can't afford to perceive the realities under her nose. Her howl of animal anguish over Adela's dead body, followed by the swift, self-convinced public announcement that she perished a virgin, are a chilling indictment of a morality steeped in deception.

Some of the female shrieking in the latter stages sounds under-motivated, insufficiently ripped from the roots of the character's being. But the production exerts an undeniable grip, giving us a Bernarda Alba that is, for once, not neutered by Englishness.

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