Unlikely though it may seem, this small theatre-in-the-round has a good track record with French farces – the actors entering and exiting through empty door frames, miming the turning of knobs, doesn't spoil the fun. But Federico Garcia Lorca's drama presents problems that are less easily solved by a theatre with the Orange Tree's architecture and nature.
Lorca's world was partly based on fact – the lot of women in rural Spain, prey to both Catholicism and peasant superstition. Breeding and baking are their only reasons for existing, and the most exciting thing girls are allowed to do is to embroider. Yet four of Bernarda Alba's five daughters – who, all in black following the death of their father, might also be in mourning for their lives – will never marry, she says, because "the men here are not of their class".
The bleakness is pierced by moments of florid passion. A local woman, the servants whisper, has been carried off on horseback, bare-breasted and laughing, for a hilltop orgy. Such imagery may arise from fertility rites, but it's also a product of Lorca's own repression: the life of a homosexual must have been far more frustrating than that of the most downtrodden woman. A more direct symbol of the latent violence of thwarted sex is the stallion whinnying and kicking the stable door. At the end, another door is broken down to reveal that love denied turns inward and destroys.
The darkness of this vision, however, is hardly conveyed by a white floor and tablecloths, and a few brightly lit furnishings. True, the play takes place during "a very hot summer", but indoors and at night. Nor is the relentless climate of oppression sustained by a clear view of the spectators – the earnest faces of the tweedy patrons, just a few inches from the actors, make it hard to believe that we have been transported to a cruel, exotic world.
Auriol Smith has directed the play and written, with Rebecca Morahan, a new translation, in both roles producing an ambiance that is closer to Cheltenham than Galicia. Bernarda seems, in Lynn Farleigh's incarnation, a severe but incompetent headmistress, and her daughters merely fretful young ladies. Adela could be auditioning for the vamp role in the school play ("When I look into his eyes, it's as if I'm drinking his blood") but then reverts to her normal self: "Good job I've got a sense of humour." The sour servants may hail from across the water but not in a southerly direction: "Here's fer dis, and here's fer dat, and here's fer de other."
The production comes across as a gesture towards worthiness rather than a surrender to this terrible and beautiful play.
To 19 April (020-8940 3633)