'The House of Bernarda Alba' review or 'I'm not hanging around here for much longer...'

'The House of Bernarda Alba', Federico Garcia Lorca. A new version by Emily Mann
Almeida Theatre, Friday 27th January 2012
Written for The Ham & High

Shrouded in darkness, a woman carefully wraps a black shawl around her body and across her face. The shawl now resembles a burka, with the woman's features all but blotted out. Suddenly, the silence is broken by a booming crash – lightning streaks across the stage and a massive black curtain swoops down, to reveal a house choking in dust.

It is a bold opening from director Bijan Sheibani, which deftly relocates Lorca's final play, 'The House of Bernard Alba', from Spain to Iran. The scene's visual flair and its subtle introduction of key themes – the isolation and repression of women – suggests an unusual and punchy production. Unfortunately, such hopes are quickly dashed, as the excitement settles and a dull gloom sets in.

Iranian TV and film star, Shohreh Aghdashloo, plays Bernarda Alba – a cruel and domineering mother, who forces her daughters into 8 years of mourning, following their father's death. It is an exceptional role, with a cruel energy that should set Lorca's sorrowful play alight. But although Aghdashloo's Alba has a cool beauty and a smothering voice, she does not frighten. When she beats her daughter, the blows do not connect and, when she screams with rage, it is a hoarse whisper rather than a blazing attack.

Without this vicious central performance, Sheibani's restrained production grows weary. There's no rage or fear to energise the text and Emily Mann's slightly formal script begins to stiffen. As we crawl towards the tragic conclusion, the housekeeper Darya (Jane Bertish, in the warmest performance of the night) moans, ''In every room a storm is brewing and the day it breaks it will sweep us all away.' But this storm explodes only in the final scene and, although its an electric ending, it cannot make up for an otherwise subdued production.


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