Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

The House of Bernarda Alba

Federico Garcia Lorca
Royal Exchange Theatre & Graeae Theatre Company
Royal Exchange, Manchester
03 February 2017 to 25 February 2017

While some people may be seeking to reinforce borders, or strengthen walls, the Royal Exchange is looking to break down barriers with this landmark performance ­- using a play that is all about control and coercion.

Bernarda’s husband may be dead, but the stifling authority of his patriarchy lives on in the rigid control of his wife. She rules the lives of her five daughters with a wicker cane, that might as well be a rod of iron, and has commanded them to observe eight years of chaste mourning.

It’s a co-production with Graeae Theatre Company, who have made it their life’s work to promote the abilities of disabled players. So this new adaptation of Lorca’s play deftly weaves British Sign Language, audio description and captioning into its performance.

This is a significant production in the very essence of that word.

It’s also an ‘access all areas’ performance as members of the cast sign each other’s language, whilst in turn it is simultaneously broadcast as sur-titles on monitors around the stage area. Though you might have to be a speed reader, with 20/20 vision, to catch all of those words.

The poetry of Lorca’s original language is distilled in Jo Clifford’s translation and the classic symbolism and themes are strictly adhered to in director Jenney Sealey’s production and designer Liz Ascroft’s stripped-down staging. The latter extends to stencilled labelling around and about the walls and floors, but when it extends to a table, identified as Table, it might be a concept taken just a tad too far?

There’s no such tagging required for Kathryn Hunter’s imperious performance as Bernarda. In earlier Manchester appearances she has demonstrated her own unique theatrical sign language, and this is another highly potent display of that commanding presence. Little wonder she is among the current Manchester Theatre Award nominations for Best Actress for last year’s role in The Emperor at HOME.

For all its cloistered containment, however, this particular House lacks the essential sexual tension to its story, even if it is largely successful in challenging audience preconceptions about conformity.

Reviewer: David Upton


Comment by David Cunningham

One can admire the intentions behind the production but there is a sense of a company concentrating on overcoming the technical challenges involved in the staging in this manner to the extent that the storytelling suffers. With one character speaking on behalf of another there is a loss of individuality so retaining sympathy becomes difficult   

Comment by Alan Hulme

I agree with David C, one has to admire the intentions behind the production. But I don't think it should be part of a season ticket main house run, more suitable, in my opinion, for studio theatres, for a couple of nights each as part of a tour. Will your average theatregoer be engrossed? I wasn't, I've never been fascinated by the play itself and this evening didn't perk up my interest, in fact it was one of the more boring nights I've had in a theatre in recent times.