Women behaving badly

The House of Bernarda Alba is a tragi-comic tale of sisterhood
Click to follow

When Howard Davies rang David Hare to suggest he adapt Federico Garcia Lorca's brooding 1936 masterwork The House of Bernarda Alba, Hare dis-missed the play as tedious and one-dimensional. Davies asked him to look again: could it be that there was a funny side to the story of five young girls forced by their widowed mother to observe a five-year period of mourning?

When Howard Davies rang David Hare to suggest he adapt Federico Garcia Lorca's brooding 1936 masterwork The House of Bernarda Alba, Hare dis-missed the play as tedious and one-dimensional. Davies asked him to look again: could it be that there was a funny side to the story of five young girls forced by their widowed mother to observe a five-year period of mourning?

Davies proved persuasive, and Hare rewarded him with a script harnessing the savage humour missing in previous adaptations. "I was thrilled," says Davies, who will direct the new version. "He had caught hold of something very vital. This isn't a laugh-a-minute play, but when people behave badly, I find it absurd and therefore comedic."

For Penelope Wilton, who will play the title role, the play is full of contemporary relevance. "It isn't just about classical Spain. It's rather a shocking play about family, and how you can't repress the human spirit. Davies agrees: "It is completely recognisable as a family getting themselves into an incredible situation. A bit like an extended version of The Three Sisters. It became very Chekhovian in the way I started to see it."

Wilton, better known for witty and accessible roles in films such as Calendar Girls, may seem an unlikely matriarch from hell. For Davies, she was the only choice: "Penelope is seen as very soft and sensitive, and the character of Bernarda Alba is the opposite of all that. But for me her playing that part was revelatory, it seemed to be completely obvious. She is an extraordinary actress."

Wilton returns to the National after a 10-year absence, drawn in part by Hare's treatment which she calls "very much alive, visceral and of-the-moment".

And what does Davies think were Lorca's intentions? "This is a richly dark and cruel play where people behave badly towards each other because they are frustrated with the awful orthodoxy of the lives they are leading. Nobody takes responsibility for their own actions, they are always blaming a sister, or their mother, or the world. I thought that was a bit recognisable."

Davies, Hare and Wilton are a tried and tested triumvirate. The 1994 film A Secret Rapture, which they directed, wrote and starred in, respectively, found critical acclaim. Davies explains: "David writes in a way which is comedic, but because he uses language as power, and not as self-expression. Penelope adores his writing because it allows her to inhabit that area fully."

Past performances of this work have been stark visual affairs, but Davies promises a vibrant aesthetic: "We have made it very rich texturally. It's damp and hot because we thought that would be redolent of the daughters and the fecundity that exists in the play. You should be able to see, feel and hear the huge potential these girls have. The play becomes tragic when you realise that is being taken away."



'The House of Bernarda Alba,' National Theatre: Lyttelton, London SE1 (020-7452 3000; www.nationaltheatre.org.uk) in rep to June

Comments