The House of Bernarda Alba Tramway, Glasgow
Despite a two-year absence since their last major production, Glasgow's Raindog company maintain an impressively high recognition-factor among Scottish theatre audiences. This is partly due to the recent meteoric ascendancy of one Robert Carlyle, co-founder of the company in 1991 along with Caroline Paterson and Stuart Davids, director of this latest project. But Raindog are remembered, too, for work that consistently married artistic rigour to a dynamically inventive theatrical approach - hallmarks evident again in their ambitious new version of Lorca's last drama, even if its experiments don't always come off.
Davids' most obvious innovation is to bring the play's external setting and events, originally relayed from offstage, into the foreground of the action at certain key moments, so that the production begins, for instance, with the funeral procession for Bernarda's late husband, an imposing dumb- show sequence featuring the full 30-strong cast, family and villagers. This opening up of the piece, both physically and contextually, represents a bold attempt to utilise the Tramway's huge, lofty space, but one that doesn't wholly knit with Lorca's intense, oppressive focus on the emotional cauldron of Bernarda's menage.
While Kenny Miller's stark, striking design vividly conjures the embittered matriarch's stern, suffocating piety, the sense of claustrophobia necessary to underpin the drama's increasingly explosive atmosphere is well-nigh impossible to attain amid such airy dimensions.
The production's other key point of friction lies between its efforts to realise the full, tragic weight of the drama, while simultaneously revealing the characters' more human side, a conflict manifest both in its linguistic approach, and in the ambivalent tone of the central performances. The company's colloquialised Scots text often sounds uneasily at odds with the action's awful, mythic thrust, playing up the household's domestic dynamics at the expense of its emblematic qualities. The emphasis on personality does pay dividends in Barbara Rafferty's Bernarda, movingly conveying the half-apprehended powerlessness beneath her absolutist demeanour, as well as upping the ante when it comes to her daughter's dangerously seething frustrations.
Lots of negatives, it would seem - but only because the production sets itself such high standards.
There is certainly much to enjoy, Shirley Henderson's painfully fevered performance as the brittle child-woman Adela, Mandy Matthews' poisonously baleful Martirio and Anne Myatt as Bernarda's maid-cum-confidante Maria Josefa, a Cassandra-like touchstone of sanity amid the traumatically gathering storm, all standing out alongside Rafferty, while the company's ensemble strength delivers a truly shocking climax. Far better, after all, to aim high and fall somewhere short, than to stay cautiously earthbound: it's good to see them back.
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