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The House of Bernarda Alba
Court House Theatre
By Frederico Garcia Lorca, 1936
Directed by Tadeusz Bradecki

Play summary | Globe and Mail review

From the program:

The play begins in the whitewashed central room in a bourgeois Spanish house, and bells can be heard tolling in the distance. We learn from the servants that this is the house of Bernarda Alba, the wife of a farmer, who has been attending her husband's funeral along with her five grown daughters. The eldest daughter, by Bernarda's first husband, has some money of her own that her father left to her, but the others will get no inheritance to speak of.

When Bernarda returns home for the wake, she snarls at the servants and leads everyone in prayer. But she is so inhospitable that the guests leave almost immediately; and when they have gone, she announces to her daughters that the house will be shut tight for eight years of mourning. This decree does not sit well with the daughters, the eldest of whom is being courted (for her money) by a handsome young villager, and the youngest of whom rebels against anything that will keep her from experiencing life outside the walls of the house.

The Globe and Mail's review:

Past classic, terrifyingly present
Saturday, July 6, 2002 Print Edition, Page R12

Rating: ***

When he wrote The House of Bernarda Alba, the Spanish playwright and poet Federico Garcia Lorca boasted that he had wrung every drop of poetry out of the play. It's a misleading statement: the new translation by Toronto playwright and poet Richard Sanger, which the Shaw Festival unveiled Thursday, bristles with intense lyricism and massive metaphor. What Lorca, who was best known in Spain in 1936 for popular love poems, must have meant was that he had purged it of sentiment and romance: He went on to say that he had created here pure realism.

But the realism of the suffocating Andalusian village where the newly widowed and very tyrannical Bernarda Alba keeps her five adult daughters prisoners of propriety is a very different one, not only from 21st-century Canada but also from the 19th-century English drawing rooms in which the Shaw company is more accustomed to finding itself.

As this rare revival directed by the Shaw's ever-welcome Polish visitor Tadeusz Bradecki opens in the Court House Theatre, it's hard not to puzzle over a cloistered dictatorship where the maid can't fold a sheet without trailing it on the ground and the daughters move needlessly about the scantly furnished courtyard. Little of the physical action seems natural as Bradecki and his cast struggle to establish the heat and the stasis of this place.

Patricia Hamilton's frank, contemporary-looking version of the loyal and blunt-spoken servant La Poncia feels like a visitor from another century. It's difficult to figure out whether Susie Burnett's dark version of the crippled daughter Martirio is scheming against her sisters or protecting them, and all but impossible to believe that she and Jane Perry's bland Amelia are closest confidantes. And if the impressive Nora McLellan is as hard as granite in the title role, she pushes it a little too far and lets slip a comic hint of her many previous dragon ladies.

But thankfully, while this production lacks the realism of Andalusia, Lorca's greater realism carries the day. As Lynne Cormack positions her quietly simpering version of Angustias against Fiona Byrne's effervescent Adela, the romantic rivalry between the eldest daughter and the youngest for the hand of the unseen cad Pepe hurtles towards tragedy, sweeping an audience with it.

When the festival revives a play such as Bernard Shaw's Getting Married or Noel Coward's Easy Virtue, these societies that made a woman's virginity her only asset seem a million miles away and their mores only quaint. But Lorca has written a classic here and, in the end, Bernarda's tyranny and Adela's defiance are terrifyingly present.

The House of Bernarda Alba continues to Oct. 5 at the Shaw Festival's Court House Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. For information: 1-800-511-7429.

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