Katherine Hare’s assured production of Michael John LaChiusa’s musical adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba – first staged in New York in 2006 – combines beautiful choreography, clever staging and full-blooded performances to strike a shattering emotional note that never seems strained.
Antonio MarÃa Benavides, scourge of serving girls everywhere and disparaged in the Spanish village in which he lived, is dead – leaving behind a widow, Bernarda Alba, and five daughters (the eldest of which, Angustias, is the product of her mother’s first marriage to a far wealthier man). Embittered by years of her husband’s philandering, Alba turns the customary period of mourning into a prison sentence for her children; cutting them off from society in the airless gloom of their shuttered house. But when the girls grow restless and a local man, Pepe el Romano, starts calling at Angustias’s window after midnight, tragedy ensues.
LaChiusa’s dialogue and songs capture the harsh, sensual earthiness of Lorca’s original play. Nature strains against the leash of social repression as the all-female cast fan themselves in the heat and swap stories of whores leading men to olive groves as they sew the days away. And when, backed by rich orchestration, they sing (powerfully, and well) of a pain that isn’t hunger, it isn’t just for them. This is myth-making at work; a dark history of women steeped in desire and loathing, shaped by fathers and lovers who, never appearing on stage, are nowhere but everywhere.
Some atmospheric lighting heightens this tension, alternating between the dull yellow of a dying day and a diffuse red glow that reflects the girls’ mounting sexual frustration. This deepening sense of cabin fever is well served by the small size of the Union’s stage, which, very literally, leaves the dysfunctional family with no place to turn but on each other. Thanks to choreographer Racky Plews’s skilfully arranged and visually-arresting flamenco routines – which blend seamlessly with the drama – this cramped arena is breathlessly and effectively claustrophobic rather than cluttered.
As the tyrannical Alba, Beverly Klein is a woman who has channelled the bone-deep pain of her life into a sadistic preservation of order and tradition. Stalking her home with a walking-stick that she wields like a cudgel, she has the smile of a steel strap and a temper of equal force. It’s easy to sympathise with her daughters when they flinch in her presence. The only problem with Klein is her tendency to shout at times when just being loud isn’t enough. She’s at her most nuanced best when sparring with Ellen O’Grady, who is superb as a likeable, insightful and strong-willed Poncia. Ostensibly Alba’s housekeeper, she’s the only person with the guts to challenge her.
Given the size of the cast, it’s inevitable that some of the daughters make more of an impression than others; but it’s a testament to the strength of their chemistry and the high standard of their performances that no one disappears entirely. Sophie Juge is suitably fragile as Angustias (Poncia’s convinced that Alba’s eldest will die in childbirth), who refuses to accept that Pepe is courting her for her dead father’s money while cheating on her with her sister, Adela. Amelia Adams-Pearce oozes sex-appeal and desperation in equal measure as this sultry but emotionally bruised temptress – sneaking around in her slip and clutching her shiny green dress as if it was a promise of a better life. But as this powerful production whirls with gripping relentlessness to its conclusion, it’s clear that there’s no such thing.