The House of Bernarda Alba
Written for Exeunt
Director Bijan Sheibani has transported Lorca’s final play to modern day Iran. It’s an intriguing act of relocation. The political backdrop, with a Shah forced into exile amid brutally suppressed pro-democracy protests, is fittingly tumultuous given that Lorca would be killed in the Spanish Civil War only months after the play was completed. But Emily Mann’s new adaptation distinguishes itself in its evocative and poetic visual language rather than its socio-political commentary.
Lorca’s plays are defined by their desire to find duende – the soul of an experience – and by the way in which he explores the complex mechanics of domination through potent dualities: tradition and progress, the internal and the external, fragility and starkness. These dualities aren’t as overt in this version, but Mann’s adaptation has an atmospheric richness. Sheibani also introduces another stylistic layer – the Dashti song, a modal form of traditional Iranian music – that articulates the emotional life of the characters and the strength of will that feeds their passions.
Locked in the confines of a house with thick walls and covered windows at the peak of summer, Bernarda’s five daughters live in the shadow of their mother, a woman stiff as granite, cold and austere, tyrannical in her wish to preserve honour at any cost. Within the house, the daughters are subject to strong passions, desires and frustrations which sit in stark contrast with the stern sterility imposed by the mother.
Sheibani’s production manages to not only explore the quarrel between tradition and emancipation at the heart of this cross-section of Iranian women – the hijab is used both as a code and a symbol – but also to articulate Lorca’s metaphor of the house as a micro-community, with Bernarda as its figure of authority. Despite the precision of the direction, certain aspects of the play – particularly the more poetic, playful scenes – have been removed, which limits things both in terms of plot and scope; this is a production in need of strong dramaturgy. This cultural landscape could have been explored with more tenacity and detail and, at times, the production feels too constrained in its exploration of authority, too grounded in social realism to function on the poetic level that is so engrained in Lorca’s original.
It’s the aesthetics of the production that reclaims some of the play’s poetic nature; the end of every act takes the form of a photographic portrait. Visually dominated by black and white, these evoke the absent sense of duality: the struggle between good and evil, freedom and repression. The delicacy of these portraits is complimented by the sound that accompanies them. The production’s opening scene is one of its most powerful: a woman in a nightgown stands against a solid white wall, embracing the hijab as a flash bulb flares with the force of a thunderclap.
The performances are strong. Shohreh Aghdashloo, as Bernarda, is not so much imposing as immutable, dominating the space through her physical presence and the elegance of her mannerisms, bringing a level of complexity to an otherwise austere character. Hara Yannas makes a vigorous and energetic Adela, Amanda Hale is suitably tormented as Elmira and Jane Bertish gives a highly nuanced performance as Darya, Bernarda’s loyal servant.
This is, on many levels, a strong production and one that fully engages with Lorca’s theatricality. But in its pursuit of the socio-political, it sacrifices some of Lorca’s poetic muscularity and the specificity of its cultural landscape is ultimately limiting.