The last time The House of Bernarda Alba was seen in London it came complete with song and dance: Triptic’s dynamic production of Michael John LaChiusa’s musicalisation of Lorca’s 1936 play was one of the highlights of the Union Theatre’s programming last year. Now the play returns to London, again in an adapted form. Bijan Sheibani’s new production at the Almeida relocates the action from southern Spain to rural Iran, in an attempt to give Lorca’s classic about a tyrannical matriarch maintaining a stranglehold over her five daughters a fresh, contemporary context.
It’s a transition that promises more than it actually delivers, though. The play’s engagement with issues of gender and oppression can’t be said to be illuminated by the location shift, which, if anything, feels entirely cosmetic: a little light name-changing here, some Dashti song there. Otherwise, Emily Mann’s translation stays close to the structure and imagery of the original, including its none-too-subtle sexual symbolism. (Yep, that ol’ stallion is still out there in the corral, seeming to grow to “twice its size, filling the darkness!”)
Aided by a nicely-detailed set by Bunny Christie, an excellent sound design by Dan Jones and evocative lighting by Jon Clark (plus an effective visual flourish that concludes each Act as a photographic portrait) Sheibani’s production has atmosphere and visual richness. What it doesn’t quite have is the sustained, tightly-coiled intensity that the piece really requires. The drama seems set at an oddly low temperature here, and never reaches boiling point. Key elements - from Bernarda’s face-off with her servant to the passion of Adela (Hara Yannas) for her half-sister's fiance Pepe el Romano (renamed Parviz Rumani here) - feel muted; they lack bite. LaChiusa’s adaptation dug out the feminist underpinnings of the piece, locating a withering critique of patriarchy and its tendency to pit women against each other. Here, in contrast, the play seems considerably less radical, a minor ode to the neuroses of “women without men.”
One of the production’s primary draws is the casting of the Iranian-American actress Shohreh Aghdashloo - so memorable in House of Sand and Fog (2003) and The Stoning of Soraya M. (2008) - in the title role. It’s an absorbing performance because Aghdashloo brings an entirely unexpected quality to Bernarda: namely, sexuality. Whether this makes much sense in terms of the character as written is debatable. But it does set up an intriguing tension between the character’s statements on women’s propriety and the languid, sultry cadences in which she delivers them. (This Bernarda’s case for female repression is undermined every time she opens her mouth.) Aghdashloo's Bernarda doesn’t quite have the fearsome authority that actresses such as Glenda Jackson, Lynn Farleigh and Beverley Klein have brought to the role, since Aghdashloo's voice can’t help but seduce: it turns curses into caresses. (It’s the exact opposite of a Jackson voice.) But she still provides the production with its primary source of interest, though Jane Bertish is shrewd as Bernarda’s servant, and, of the daughters, the always-inventive Amanda Hale as Elmira (Matirio) makes a strong impression, externalising her character’s distress with the unnerving transparency that she brought to her Laura in Rupert Goold’s 2007 Glass Menagerie. Still, this production - elegant as it undoubtedly is - never truly ignites.
The production runs until 10th March. Further information at the Almeida website.