The flagship show of Suspense 2011 with its theme of puppetry and politics, Yas-e-Tamam’s production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s play The House of Bernarda Alba about a manipulative widow and her five daughters living isolation against an impending backdrop of fascism is the company’s British debut, having performed in Spain, France, Lebanon and their native Iran. Iran isn’t known for its theatrical or puppetry tradition (at least not in Britain); the choice of source material with the implicit parallels between 1930s Spain and the contemporary Middle East (Almeida Theatre will also be presenting a Middle Eastern-set production of this play in 2012) combined with an arresting visual style fused together to create a nightmarish world of oppression and brainwashed conformity.
Condensed into an hour and performed to a pre-recorded soundtrack in Farsi without surtitles, the puppeteers (revealed at the end to be two women and a man) are life-sized versions of the puppets, dressed in black robes that resemble both nuns’ habits and burkas. The puppeteers’ faces are covered with white masking material and like the puppets have crudely stitched identical, featureless faces with stitches covering their faces and hands like scars. Reza Mehidizade’s effectively simple set comprises of wooden boxes and suitcases of various sizes and the puppets emerge from a long, narrow box like a coffin during Bernarda Alba’s husband’s funeral, with echoes of the undead as these forbidding rag dolls crowd together accompanied by mournful music.
On the predominately black stage, flashes of colour appear in the form of a red horse and the threads on an embroidery frame from which the ill-fated youngest daughter Adela hangs herself. Sewing, a traditionally female activity, is a recurring motif, a symbol of creativity and a weapon, as Alba threatens one of her daughters by mining sewing up her mouth and therefore taking away her ability to speak.
The storytelling in Zahra Sabri’s production doesn’t transcend language as much as would be ideal and it would benefit from surtitles to make the nuances in the story more comprehensible and to get a clearer sense of individual voices and characters. As it stands, it is daringly radical in itself by charging these blank-faced puppets with political fervour in a world where individual self expression is not something to be encouraged.