‘The House of Bernarda Alba’: DST freshers play review

Tensions rise and the atmosphere suffocates in DST’s production of ‘The House of Bernarda Alba’, directed by Ben Johanson and Flo Lunnon. Federico García Lorca’s final play (written in 1936) was a fantastic pick: it centres around a house in lockdown, where the five daughters of Bernarda Alba, a formidable matriarch, are isolated and denied access to wider society. When a male suitor arrives (off-stage), the family quickly turns against itself, revealing the inherent violence of patriarchy and repression.

The decision to relocate the action of the play from Spain to 1970s Ireland was astute: there are key parallels between both Catholic undercurrents and regional violence/revolution. However, these parallels could have been emphasised further – the Irish background is not entirely obvious in the play or set, aside from in the accents and advertising.

The set and costumes, however, accurately conveyed the tone of the piece. Set in the aftermath of a funeral, the mourners are in black and the set mostly follows suit, with stark white chairs marking an aesthetic contrast. The colours seem to embody the melancholia of the play, also making disruptions of the colour scheme at a few key moments even more evocative. With fears of sounding like an English teacher (‘the curtains are blue because…’), the red curtains of the Assembly Rooms theatre are a perhaps unintentional backdrop, framing the action in crimson along with the occasional blood-red lighting.

The cast did a good job in representing the toxic and combative relationships within the house. In a production that depended so much on group scenes, the cast had a natural group dynamic and there were rarely issues with blocking or sightlines. Occasionally the venom of some of Lorca’s lines was lost – the subtler scenes could have done with some more attention and emphasis on the often-violent tone of the script. The strongest scenes were those between the sisters, with a reactive chemistry highlighting the antagonism at the heart of the family.

Particularly effective were the performances of Honor Douglas (playing Martirio) and Juliette Willis (playing Adela), the subtleties of their characters’ desires and jealousies effectively coming across in both the quieter and more explosive scenes. Catherine Turner plays Bernarda Alba with a melancholic bitterness, crafting an effectively dislikeable character, yet the moments of vindictive rage could have been given more emphasis to add further dynamism to the character. Turner and Maddie Clark did both however perform one of the most convincing stage slaps I have seen in a long while. Zara Ewan also deserves a mention with her dynamic portrayal of La Poncia, a gossiping servant who often becomes a commentator on the action.

However, one limitation of the production was the quality of the filming. Unfortunately, the sound quality was not great, making it quite difficult to hear some lines without having to replay the action again on the video. The video quality also causes issues, with some faces occasionally being lost in the bright lighting. Of course, these are constraints of the technology available, and the performance still shines through these issues.

The camerawork was a nice touch, making it easier to read reactions and cues with close-ups on moments of action or nuance. Occasionally the camera was in the wrong place for the line, but this only happened a few times and the work was overall effective.

Tickets are still available for tonight’s performance on the Assembly Rooms Theatre’s website, and the video will be available until midnight tonight. A good production of a quite difficult and explosive play, DST’s ‘The House of Bernarda Alba’ is well worth a watch.

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