Cervantes Theatre, London – until9 December 2017
Federico Garcia Lorca’s play, The House of Bernarda Alba, offers an interesting insight into the world of upper-middle-class Spanish women in the 1930s, living in a small village where everyone knows everyone else’s business.
With the benefit of hindsight, The House of Bernarda Alba feels like a metaphor for the brutal repression, imprisonments and mass murders committed under Franco’s fascist dictatorship. We know this cannot be correct, because Federico García Lorca wrote the play at the start of the Spanish civil war in 1936 and was in fact killed by fascist/nationalist forces two months after completing it.
Nevertheless, I can still see the parallels; Bernarda Alba, terrifyingly played (in the English cast) by Mary Conlon, is a callous and abusive matriarch, controlling every aspect of her five daughters’ lives to the extent that they are effectively imprisoned at home. As befits their class, her daughters are not allowed outside. They must wait to be married off. This is no Pride and Prejudice, it is much darker and there is no happy ending.
Under Bernada Alba’s regime, her daughters are not permitted to leave the house; the only way they would be allowed to leave is to attend church or their weddings. However, Bernada goes much further than society and tradition demand of middle-class Spanish women in the 1930s. Bernada vetoes her daughters from marrying anyone she thinks is not good enough. So any potential or actual suitors who are lower class, such as the son of a field hand, are ruled out. This leaves her daughters trapped in a perpetual state of emotional and sexual frustration. From her eldest daughter, still unmarried at 39, to her youngest daughter constantly yearning. Bernada, however, has consented to 25-year-old Pepe’s pursuit of Angustias, the eldest, in the knowledge that their engagement is purely for Angustias’ money and assets.
From my 21st century gaze, it may be difficult to see why it was censored when it was performed during Franco’s regime in the 1950s. However from the perspective of 1930s Spain, it is easy to understand how shocking the play was. Federico Garcia Lorca’s play dealt with the sexual desires of heterosexual middle class women who are cruelly repressed by society and by Bernada’s tyrannical regime.
There is no love in the House of Bernada Alba, there is hatred, anger, frustration, desperation, longing and sexual desire but no love. The play allows the Alba sisters to openly express their sexuality, which must have been astounding for an early 20th century audience. The shock factor is due to 2 issues. Firstly that it revealed that heterosexual women had sexual appetites, just like heterosexual men. Secondly, that the female characters openly expressed their sexuality. Bernada Alba’s daughters could only take out their frustrations on their Singer sewing machines, which they pedalled furiously at various times, and each other, they often fought. They also resorted to spying on field hands from their windows. The only sister who was bold enough to satisfy her need for sex was the youngest, who was the most rebellious and passionate of them all. Although now uncensored, the Director, Jorge de Juan, ensures that the play remains very much a period piece and it was not sexed up for a 21st century audience. We overhear, but cannot watch, Adela’s sighs and laughter during her off stage lovemaking with Pepe.
The play opens with the inhabitants of the House of Bernada Alba returning from Bernada’s husband’s (her daughters’ father) funeral. The housekeeper, Poncia, brilliantly played by Moir Leslie and maid Criada, acted by Jimena Larraguivel, gossip about the family. Most of their anger is focussed on Bernada, whom Poncia has wasted 30 years washing and cleaning for. As an aside, it is revealed that Bernada’s husband sexually assaulted the maid Criada, who tells his photo to “rot away, never again lift up my skirt.” There seems to be a confused message about this because Criada also says to his photo “Antonio, of those who served you, I loved you the most.” She then collapses to the floor weeping. Does this sanction his sexual assault, because it may have later become consensual, or because she grew to love him? There was no further mention of this in the play, is this because it was acceptable and normal behaviour for a male employer to sexually assault servants?
Bernada’s attitude to relationships between men and women is summed her when she comments that “women should look at no man except the priest and only because he is wearing skirts,” and bids her daughters to obey men. This was both amusing and appalling. Bernada continues to exert her power over the household when she declares that they must observe an 8 year period of mourning and embroidery for her husband/ their father/their employer. The sisters spend their days in sexual frustration, fiercely pedalling on their Singer sewing machines, fighting, crying and spying on each other and the outside world. As Adela says “each of us has something eating away at us.” Although groundbreaking the play has a very traditional message that women cannot live without men. It is therefore very much of its time and from a 1930s male gaze.
Poncia is like Bernada’s conscience, she criticises Bernada for not allowing her daughters freedom. She also warns Bernada that something is happening between Pepe and Adela urging her to allow Pepe to marry Adela and criticising her for not allowing Martirio to marry. Poncia does not act out of love for the daughters. She makes this clear saying “I’ve no affection for any of you…I just want to live in a decent house.” I also do not care about the characters, they seem to be stereotypes. There is Amelia, played by Pia Laborde, the sister who stutters and is shy. There is the daughter who has a physical deformity, Martirio played by Beth Smith, who spies on Adela. There is Magdalena, the daddy’s girl and of course Adela the youngest who is also the most passionate and rebellious of all the sisters. As for Bernada, excellently acted by Mary Conlon, she is an evil villain with no redeeming features. She is acutely aware of her class and hurtfully refers to Poncia’s background (she is the daughter of a prostitute), accusing Poncia of trying to drag the family down, with her requests to allow the daughters more freedom and to marry. Poncia seems to be almost as trapped by the circumstances of her birth as Bernada and her daughters, having been saved by Bernada. Conlon is scary as Bernada, a sadistic tyrant desperate to keep power over her daughters at all costs. She is desperate to keep up appearances at the expense of her daughters’ health, well-being and happiness. Bernada’s attitude to her daughters is not an expression of love: “A daughter who disobeys stops being a daughter and becomes an enemy.” So the tragic ending, foreshadowed by Poncia, is not entirely surprising.
Unlike Pride and Prejudice, The House of Bernada Alba is brutal, harsh and realistic, with no love or romance, just tyranny, sexual desire and frustration. There is no prospect of happiness for anyone. At least the Bennet sisters could attend balls, visit friends and family, go rambling in the countryside and even marry for love.
The House of Bernada Alba is on at The Cervantes Theatre from 23 October to 9 December 2017.
Photograph by Elena Molina.