The House of Bernarda Alba, Almeida, London


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Bijan Sheibani's mesmerically haunting and handsome production of this 1936 Lorca classic is performed in one hundred interval-less minutes.

 mean it as an unambiguous compliment to say that when I walked out at the end into the cold, bracing air of Islington, I felt that I was emerging from a week's incarceration in a peculiarly stifling prison.  It's by no means the first time that this tragedy of maternal tyranny, sexual repression and devastating mutinous desire has been transferred from Andalusia to another equivalent culture.  The play has been located to (inter alia) Pakistan and in a recent National Theatre revival, ostensibly set in Spain, there was even a faint whiff of St Trinian's about the single-sex household.  For the helplessness of Lorca's women -- in a shame culture that turns them into their own jailors -- has become an emblem of distatorial states world wide.

Sheibani here shifts the proceedings to modern rural Iran, a telling (and potentially risky) stroke.  You know that it is going to reap rich dividends from the moment when Bunny Christie's high-walled family home (a prison in all but name) is infiltrated by a twenty-strong bevy of burqa-clad women ready to embark on the formalities of funeral prayer.  As they gather and chant, it's like watching a dovecot of black trapped birds.  Their collective murmurings rev up like the sound of a plane before take-off - except that here these women are permanently grounded, flapping their fans against the oppressive heat.  Dominating the proceedings is film-star Shohreh Aghdashloo (herself an Iranian) who gives the  tyrannical, cane-wielding matriach an aura of invincible drop-dead glamour and snobbish complaceny.  She delivers the lines in a deep, lethal purr.  Her daughters ache with a pent-up sexual frustration, symbolised by the stallion that is kicking at the stable wall.  Three of them are in secret contention for the man who is engaged to the oldest because she inherited the land. 

The production is a marvel of carefully built-up, beautifully lit atmosphere. I nearly jumped out of my skin at the moment (electrifyingly time here) when Hara Yannas, excellent as the doomed rebel, stamps the matriarchal cane in two. It's a minus that I never experienced a shudder of pity for Aghdashloo's mother, who is. after all herself the victim of these rigid notions of honour.  Just as I alway want to set Falstaff loose in Spanish Goldem Age Tragedy, so here I longed to hire the services of Yonkers match-maker Dolly Levi.

To March 10