“Heteronormativity…it’s a curse!” (Lorca, at some point, probably)
There’s a splash of darkly wet blood on Susan Hilferty’s bruised red floorboards. An usher stands sentry over it as you file into the Young Vic auditorium. It could almost pass for a mistake, a little puddle that stage management forgot to wipe down before the house opened. Olwen Fouéré’s Mother’s first action is to mop it up, but the stain lingers.
Reviewers have pointed out the spiky tribalism in Marina Carr and Yael Farber’s production of Lorca’s play, on its emphasis on conflict and fractious disunity, but frankly, I was more taken with the fact that it paints heteronormativity as an abject hellscape. Relatable! The plot is Drama 101 – the Groom wants to marry the Bride, but the Bride was having/is still having a thing with Leonardo, whose family murdered the Groom’s Mother’s husband and other son. Obviously, bloody and sexy events ensue (never quite as bloody or sexy as you might think, though.)
Characters are suctioned into metaphorical corsets, unable to find the dexterity needed to unpick the strings. A strict binary has been in place since forever– all the classic stuff, like women having to be in the kitchen, women being likened to cattle, women needing to have “frippery fandangos” bought for them, men all hulking and gruff and emotionally illiterate, men always ready for a motherfucking fight to defend their motherfucking name and their motherfucking property, men grabbing women by the hair whenever women do annoying womanly things like have emotions or ask their husbands to not cheat on them while they’re pregnant – and of course, if you try to snap the whale-bones and wriggle out, you get spiked right in the ribs by the shards. It’s so clearly ridiculous and awful to a normal contemporary person that the weight of it almost doesn’t fully register, though there are a few moments which still scorch – like when Fouéré’s thin-lipped, coldly furious Mother instructs her son to hold his Bride down on their wedding night if she proves unwilling.
Yep, it’s a prison, right down to the names. Bride, Groom, Mother, Father, Wife. Yikes! Frankly, if I were the Bride, I would simply not become entangled in a toxic and deeply unfulfilling love triangle which gets swallowed up by a murderous family feud! Rigid gender roles kill!! should be the subtitle for Blood Wedding. I mean, (spoiler, but this play is mega-old so get over it) they full-on sacrifice Aoife Duffin’s rightfully pissed-off Bride because she just wanted to have a bit of pre-marital nookie with Gavin Drea’s lusty, silk-shirt-ripped-to-the-navel, pulled-from-a-Mills-&-Boon-cover Leonardo.
That’s the thing. You’re never totally sure if Farber is winking at the audience. Carr’s writing has raised veins of humour running through it, sticky as blackened blood, but Farber has a tendency to flatten them. The text of Blood Wedding edges towards the absurd, but Farber keeps it all pretty po-faced, so tonally, it sits awkwardly. There’s a version in a parallel universe which leans fully into the campy undertones, but you only see flashes of it. Kate Waters’ fight direction is frustratingly truncated – only ever getting in a few swipes before the Farber’s production hurries elsewhere – and Imogen Knight’s simmerringly sensual movement feels criminally underused. It feels like the physicality should match the text, but instead it stutters.
Carr’s adaptation is velvet thick, utterly gorgeous. The kind of densely lyrical stuff that requires you to feel out the meaning, smoothing over the bumps, getting a sense of its shape. It’s one-removed from reality, expressionistic and earthy but dreamlike too – so when rooted in humanity, it works beautifully, compounded by Emma Laxton’s pulsating, eerie sound design and Isobel Waller-Bridge’s elegiac compositions. But when the play hands over to the Moon and to Death? Not so much. Then it starts to feel overly perfumed. Your head starts to ache.
There are some flat-out great moments, like when the men dramatically rip their shirts off to have a fight – see, now that’s amazing, because it’s a) showing that animalistic, primal instinct that Carr is so intent on exposing, b) showing how silly and performative heteronormative masculinity is, and c) it’s just…fun. And there’s another great bit where Leonardo and the Groom approach each other and pull out their knives for a fight and then they’re stopped by the Father, who just wanders in with a METRE-LONG MACHETE. Of course, you realise. None of this strife is actually about anything. It’s just a dick-swinging contest.
Blood Wedding doesn’t slide to its inevitable end so much as, well, start there (I think the first line is about knives – it really is programmed into the text.) The narrative urgency saps away the closer we get to the climax. The centrifugal force wanes. Things start to drop dully to the ground, one by one. It’s all oddly disconnected, unbearably atmospheric, strangely alien, eerily beautiful. More often than not, closer to a painting than a play.
Blood Wedding is on at Young Vic until 2nd November 2019. More info and tickets here.