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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The House of Bernarda Alba
Almeida Theatre    Winter-Spring 2012

The inspiration behind Emily Mann's adaptation of Garcia Lorca's drama that the experience of women in Iran today is akin to that in super-Catholic Spain eighty years ago is an excellent and evocative one, and transporting Lorca's household of repressed and sexually-starved women to a modern setting proves easy to accept and believe. 

What is less successful in Bijan Sheibani's production is the evocation of the claustrophobic, sexually-charged atmosphere in which the tragedy plays out.

Bernarda Alba is a rich woman who keeps her five adult daughters locked up to protect their reputations and, more importantly, her own. Inevitably, the younger women feel trapped, and the eldest eagerly accepts the attentions of a younger man, choosing not to care that he is obviously more interested in her money than her. 

But her sisters are all affected by this sudden injection of testosterone into their world, and the youngest in particular is not willing to let someone else have all the pleasure, arranging private assignations with the wooer following his formal courtship visits. It cannot come to good, and does not.

The image of women forced into virtual imprisonment by external cultural forces and internalised moral values carries over into the modern setting very effectively, with Iranian-American actress Shohreh Aghdashloo creating a Bernarda defined by moral rectitude, or at least the determination not to be the subject of her neighbours' judgements. 

What's missing is the sense of five adult women slowly going mad from being treated like children. We see them so eager to catch even a glimpse of a man that they race to peep out of the shuttered windows whenever one passes by, but director Sheibani doesn't let us see the real desperation behind that action. 

The middle sisters gossip and speculate about both their eldest and youngest, but there's little sense of the sexual hunger scrabbling for scraps of vicarious thrills. And, despite a brief fan-waving sequence in an early scene, there is little sense of the oppressive heat that should be literally raising the temperature of their emotions. 

For all its success in making Lorca's story believable in a modern setting, this production is always just too cool and distant, too rarely bringing us into the hothouse of passions that drive the play. 

Shohreh Aghdashloo is a commanding presence as Barnarda, mixing cold rectitude with sultry undertones that hint at the control she had to impose on herself to become what she is. Jane Bertish is strong as the servant who has been around long enough both to sense danger and speak her mind, and Hara Yannas captures both the danger and the essential innocence of the youngest daughter's recklessness.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of The House Of Bernarda Alba - Almeida Theatre 2012

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