The House of Bernarda Alba, Lyttelton, NT, London

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The Independent Culture

At the top of Howard Davies's revival of The House of Bernarda Alba, a servant pauses while sweeping the yard to gaze up at a passing plane. The gentle purr of propellers on Paul Groothuis's sound design immediately roots us in a pre-Guernica Spain, where the sky holds nothing manmade to fear.

The playwright, Federico Garcia Lorca, was murdered by followers of Franco eight months before German bombers rained hell on Guernica. This sound-cue may play around with time, but it is as portentous as the bells that toll on the day Bernarda Alba's husband is buried.

As well as finding a social parallel in the tyrannical regime Bernarda Alba (Penelope Wilton) inflicts on her five daughters, it chimes subtly with an audience in a country engaged in a war. David Hare, whose new English version this is, laces this context through the play, letting it underpin Lorca's masterpiece of poetic realism.

The widowed Bernarda Alba confines her daughters to her Andalusian farmhouse, preserving through repression her old-world, Catholic values. The sexual tension that builds has all the sedition of a revolution. Davies, the director, has hewn finely detailed relationships between the excellent actors playing the sisters.

Wilton's Bernarda is no mere ogress, but a real, deeply complex woman. So deep is her realistic approach that there are moments where her reign of terror seems driven by a palpable sense of humanising fear. But when she remembers the aphrodisiac qualities of power, she is mesmeric in her self-possession. Deborah Findlay's servant Poncia is a gossipy, earthy everywoman whose lust for life won't be paved over by Bernarda's oppressive tenet: "It doesn't matter what we show: only what we let ourselves show." She finds echoes in Sally Hawkins's excellent Adela, whose burgeoning sexuality threatens to engulf the house. The compelling Sandy McDade invests the eldest, spinster sister Angustias with a deep well of sourness.

Vicki Mortimer's set - a Moorish, pillared courtyard - must feel appositely like a prison exercise yard to the actors, although its sumptuousness fails to register any sense of confinement out front. However, oppressive heat is conveyed vividly in Paule Constable's lighting design.

But no set could daunt this cast. Lorca's poetry remains tantalisingly subtextual, resonating in the mind. His realism, meanwhile, is served impeccably by a raft of startling performances.

To 18 June (020-7452 3000)