In the era of the #metoo movement it’s appropriate to see our major theatre companies focus their seasons on stories of both women’s liberation and oppression, with the latter being the case in this new adaptation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba by local playwright Patricia Cornelius.
Lorca was a Spanish poet and playwright of the early 20th century, himself the victim of oppression due to his closeted homosexuality, and many of his plays focus on the women of rural Spain tragically colliding with societal expectations. For a modern retelling, Cornelius has set the story on a cattle station in outback Western Australia, providing an appropriately heat-oppressed and remote alternative locale.
The wealthy patriarch of the Alba family has just passed away and his wife Bernadette and four daughters are all in varying degrees of bereavement. Following the wake, as the family move to disperse, Bernadette (Melita Jurisic) enforces an 8 week period of mourning, binding the women together in the claustrophobic heat of the family property and exposing tensions between the sisters that widen when it is revealed that eldest daughter – the plain Angela (Peta Brady) – has become the soul benefactor of her father’s will.
Angela hasn’t had men lining up to date her in the past, as her mischievous aunt Penelope (Julie Forsyth) puts it, but her new financial status sees the town lothario suddenly come a-courting. Bernadette sees this a timely chance for 39 year-old spinster Angela to continue the family line and improve their reputational status in one fell swoop.
Domineering Bernadette controls her daughters’ lives with chill authoritarianism and Jurisic delivers the woman’s stern will, influenced by years of abuse at her husband’s hand, with expertly measured tension and a perfectly saturnine determination. She stamps out the sexual desires of youngest daughter Adele (Emily Miledge), she crushes the hopes of her lesbian daughter, the eternal student Magda (Bessie Holland) and she sees through the crocodile tears of her facile daughter Marti (Candy Bowers). But the lengths of her tyranny don’t end there, making her sister Penelope play housemaid and locking up her senile mother Maria (Sue Jones) in her bedroom. There is no need for a man in this home to uphold the patriarchy; Bernadette like so many other women throughout history is more than capable of oppressing those of her own gender.
While it’s important not to forget that these kind of oppressive behaviours still exist in a modern world, it does feel somewhat uninspiring at a moment in time when it seems motivating a continued liberation would be preferred, rather than having past or present sins be lamented. Cornelius’ adaptation is wonderfully evocative of Lorca’s emotional intention, but lacks in realism, rather landing more in the area of allegorical interpretation, and subsequently falls just short of truly connecting on a pertinent level. In contrast, Simon Stone’s recent adaptation of Lorca’s Yerma for London’s Young Vic, the tale of a woman driven to madness by the inability to have a child, was a modern adaptation that made the story feel stunningly relevant to a contemporary audience.
Nevertheless, this is a quality production directed neatly and with one eye on its classical heritage. Performances are very strong for the most part, with Brady and Forsyth particularly standing out along with Jurisic. Marg Horwell’s sets work hard to illicit the summer heat of the outback despite the onset of Melbourne’s winter outside, and the bank of various fans and cooling systems on the wall perfectly symbolise the simmering oppression and sexual desire. A set of bug zappers hung from the ceiling amusingly dump the carcasses of insects across the stage as they crackle away in the night. Lighting by Rachel Burke is hauntingly beautiful and equally matched by Irine Vela’s eerie compositions.
This is a serious production executed thoughtfully that ultimately creates a modern parable, resulting in a contemplative night at the theatre.