Melbourne Theatre Company are set to take Federico Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba from its original Spain and transplant it into our very own backyard. Patricia Cornelius’ adaptation is set in rural Western Australia where Lorca’s familiar themes of power, destiny, oppression, tyranny, isolation, freedom and what it means to be a woman are explored under the heat of the Australian sun.
After the death of their father, formidable and stoic Bernarda Alba has called her daughters home to mourn and pay their respects. What ensues is a battle of wills, high drama and tragedy that raises questions about the cost of liberty and sacrifice.
Actor Emily Milledge (Story of O, The Wizard of Oz, Carrie, Antigone) plays Adele, the youngest of the four sisters in Cornelius’ adaptation.
“Whilst the family dynamic we are exploring is a strange one, with a level of emotional disconnectedness experienced between all characters, Adele is perhaps the most isolated of the sisters,” says Milledge. ” As the youngest, she is often left to her own devices, her Mother Bernadette operating on the assumption that she poses little threat to the functionality of the family unit she so despotically manages. As the story progresses, Adele will provide an important exploration of teenage extremes – desire, sibling rivalry and violence and rebellion.”
With a character that exudes heightened emotion and feels everything on a grand scale, Milledge admires her character’s passion. ” She is a highly emotional being and often moves from states of ecstatic joy to hatred in a very short time span,” she says. ” I love how unapologetically brutal some of her behaviour is towards her sisters. Although she often acts out of selfishness and a complete lack of empathy for those around her, I love how committed she is to her cause.”
As an actor, Milledge has identified the most challenging part of playing Adele and that is to find the moments to let her softness shine through. The mean-spirited, egocentric parts of her are very clear to her, but says Milledge, this is not all she is. “Although she does display an insufferable exuberance and teenage confidence early on in the play, she is also the most open, malleable and outward thinking of all the sisters. I keep having to remind myself that the events that take place in Adele’s life over the course of the play are testament to her sensitivity and craving to feel,” she says. “For me, the most enjoyable part of playing Adele is exploring her extremities. She is an all or nothing girl.”
For those familiar with Lorca’s original 1936 work, what can we expect from this re-work? Says Milledge: “This adaptation has been re-contextualised to the present day, in a remote location in Western Australia. By sheer virtue of this setting and time change it will of course, be more familiar to local Australian audiences. The darkness of our colonial history provides an important framework within which our work is set and should be analysed.”
Lorca’s quite potent themes of the oppression of women and class distinction, and what these ideals breed, are, however, a common thread that remains.
“One of the main themes we explore in this play is the insidious contagion of the patriarchy which thrives so extremely inside the walls of the Alba household,” says Milledge. ” In the play we observe women inflicting violence upon one other, intending to destroy. The women we see on this stage will literally tear each other’s hair out if it means they can get one step closer to pushing through the doors that confine them to their miserable existence. Each woman we observe wants to get out, break free from something, but would sooner hurt her sister to get ahead than take her hand and face the barred door together.”
But Lorca’s tragedy is not without humour, as Cornelius has discovered in her adaptation, and it is this quality (as in life at times) that often gives a drama the punch in the guts it needs to serve the truthful layering of the story. Milledge believes that the audience will respond very positively to the comedy in Cornelius’s adaptation. “Audience members who have experience with Lorca’s writing might expect us to be working purely within the parameters of drama and tragedy, but there is in fact a lot of comedy to be found in the strangeness of these ludicrous women and their behaviour towards one another,” she says.
The House of Bernarda Alba – Enter if you dare!
May 25 – July 7
Images: Justin Ridler