The House of Bernarda Alba at the National Theatre review: a study of repression horribly relevant to today

Director Rebecca Frecknall creates one of the finest acting ensembles of recent years for this remorseless study of repression, set in a house of women in 1930s Andalucia but horribly apt for today. Harriet Walter is Bernarda, mourning her dead husband with viciously formal observance. Her mother, her five daughters and two servants are played by a set of arrestingly watchable actresses, from Rosalind Eleazar to Bryony Hannah.

As often with Frecknall’s productions, it’s slightly expressionistic. Merle Hensen’s set resembles a cutaway cell-block, there’s a discordant soundscape from Isobel Waller-Bridge and the action morphs into dance at some pivotal moments of high emotion. It’s fantastically detailed and richly textured, often lacerating, sometimes surprisingly funny. With this, her extraordinary Streetcar Named Desire, and her roaringly successful Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club, we can safely say this director is having A Moment.

The script is credited to Alice Birch “after” Federico Garcia Lorca, who was murdered by Spanish Nationalists shortly after completing the play in 1936. Though its primary target remains a hypocritical patriarchy backed up by religion and tradition, it also shows how those who suffer cruelty can themselves become cruel. Birch’s version feels sardonic and alive but uses a surprising amount of swearing. I’m no prude, but it does seem discordant that women in a house governed by rectitude and decorum should give quite so many f***s, as it were, in conversation with each other.

 (Marc Brenner)
(Marc Brenner)

Sex and death pulse through the play: the servants bring gossip about affairs and orgies but also illegitimate babies killed and hidden. Dogs howl and horses kick in the summer heat. Bernarda’s demented mother (Eileen Nicholas, forceful) dreams of marriage and pregnancy. Bernarda’s husband abused his stepdaughter Angustias (Eleazar), now 39, but left her a dowry big enough to lure the much younger village stud Pepe into marriage. All four of Angustias’s half-sisters resent her fortune: but Martirio (Lizzie Annis, heartbreaking) and sultry 20-year-old Adela (Isis Hainsworth) covet Pepe themselves. Silence and secrecy prove lethal.

From the silhouetted opening, all flicking fans and fragmented dialogue, this show rewards concentration. The teeming action in the central living room is always dense and compelling, Walter regularly cleaving through it like an implacable dreadnought. But often it’s as rewarding to watch her, the servants (Thusitha Jayasundera and Hannah) or the sisters when they’re showing us the background action of the house in the kitchen and bedrooms.

The endings to the first and second act are among the most shocking things I’ve seen on stage recently. Not your average Christmas show then, but this is bracingly good and important.

National Theatre, to January 6;