THEATRE / The caged birds sing: Rhoda Koenig on Lorca's Spanish family tragedy: The House of Bernarda Alba - The Gate, Pembridge Rd, London W11

TRAPPED rats, says Lorca, don't gnaw their bars through but turn and rend each other. The daughters of Bernarda Alba, impressed into a death-in-life mourning, listen to their housekeeper explain how she managed her late husband, who filled their house with the canaries he loved. 'Once he muttered something at me,' she says. 'So I went and killed all his canaries.' The girls gasp, then twitter with delight.

British playwrights may have portrayed their country as a drifting ship, a tatty pier show, or a broken-down hospital, but, for Federico Garcia Lorca, Spain was a coffin, from which one could hear intermittent thrashing and whimpers. In The House of Bernarda Alba, he put on stage the society that would destroy him and tear itself apart. (One month after he finished it, in 1936, the civil war broke out; a month later he was shot by the Falangists.)

Shrouded in black for a father who reserved his only affection for the maid, the four younger Alba daughters take every opportunity to remind Angustias, the eldest, that the dashing Pepe el Romano is marrying her only for her money. Adela, less than half Angustias's age, dares to challenge the life sentence of perpetual virginity and embroidery to which they have been condemned by Bernarda, who brandishes in one hand a Bible and, in the other, a whip. Yet her plan of being Pepe's lover after he marries, waiting for him in a secluded cottage, means only a more private prison and a different master. The other girls, devoid of even that hope, jeer at the few who try, and fail, to break away. When an unwed mother kills her baby, they rush to watch her being dragged off and tortured, shouting excitedly 'Viva la muerte]'

The tiny Gate Theatre may fulfil all too well Bernarda's pronouncement that, for eight years after her husband's death, 'not a breath of fresh air from the street will come into this house'. But Katie Mitchell's well-knit production for Classics on a Shoestring uses the limited space to convey a mood of intensity and repression far more successfully than did the Glenda Jackson-Joan Plowright version a few years ago. Striking rigid poses at a table topped by a dish of pomegranates, or bursting into brief, tense dances that owe as much to hysteria as to flamenco, Bernarda's daughters have been driven nearly mad by confinement. Their future is prefigured by Bernarda's mother, who scandalises her grandchildren with the force of her unvanquished desires: 'I want a young man', she wails, 'to marry me and make me happy.' Deidre Doone, glowing with an eerie, silvery femininity, beautifully expresses both the vulnerability and reproachfulness of the insane. In an excellent cast, Susan Brown's tough but pitying housekeeper and Jill Brassington's awkward, desperate Angustias are even better. Dinah Stabb's Bernarda, though, is a rather inhuman tyrant, lashing out too mechanically at her charges for us to see that she, too, is a victim of an order that, in the name of propriety, starves and cripples its young.

To 14 Nov, The Gate, Pembridge Rd, London W11 (071-229 0706)

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