First Night: Spanish saga grips and doesn't let go

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The Independent Online
The House of Bernada Alba Young Vic London

WATCHING THE English attempt to perform the work of the great Spanish dramatist, Garcia Lorca, you often feel that you now know what it would be like to observe John Gielgud, say, at the snorting, bloodlusting climax of a bull fight or Penelope Keith in the throws of lending tempestuous flesh to Carmen. Even allegedly great productions have seemed to me several pesetas short of the full currency.

In the late 80's London raved over a staging of The House of Bernarda Alba, staring Glenda Jackson and Joan Plowright, but you could have been forgiven for thinking that the proceedings were closer to the intellectual froideur of the fjords than the instinctual heat of Andalusia: Ibsen in Spanish fancy dress.

Polly Teale's new production of this great play for Shared Experience is a rather uneven affair, but it comes off better than most in this regard. There are one or two flat-out mistakes.

As a way of establishing the tense year of the play's composition, having characters peruse newspapers with headlines like "Franco Avanca" or "Guerra Civil Posible" in type large enough for the near-blind to decipher is the risible equivalent of the boy vendor in musicals shouting "Extra! Extra! Extra!".

But without resorting to touristy Hispanic flummery the production does conjure up a genuinely powerful sense of the stifling atmosphere in this all female household with its oppression mourning rituals and its amateurish rivalries over the local stud, who is betroved to one sister, forlornly lusted after by another (a rather semophorically twisted and neurotic Tanya Ronder) and having clandestine carnal frolics with Amanda Drew's tauntingly aroused and impulsive Adela.

Angel Davies's imposing design is dominated by two massive bolted wooden doors with a complicated system of sealed windows and flaps, through the thin interstices of which the debarred son is tantalisingly glimpsed.

Trailing her stick over the floor behind her like a grating auditory reminder of who is boss, Sandra Duncan's grim-faced, formidable Bernarda is a matriarch fit to frighten any of the warders on Cell Block H. But she also lets you see the personal price this woman has paid.

Duncan's howl of animal anguish over Adela's dead body, followed by the frighteningly self-convinced public announcement that she died a virgin, are a chilling indictment of a system that depended on deception at every level.

Some of the female shrieking in the later stages sounds undermotivated, not torn from the roots of the character's being. But the production exerts an undeniable grip, giving us a Bernarda Alba that is, for once, not neutered by Anglicisation.