“That’s what it is to be a woman.” Bernada repeats aggressively to her daughters. After her husband, passes away, she instructs the family that they will be going into an eight-year mourning.
Focused around the idea of communication, or more importantly lack of communication. Graeae Theatre Company’s production of the well-known play uses BSL, audio description and captioning to bring the important themes and dialogue to the forefront. These elements enhance the piece as the tension and relationships between the sisters are heightened through the interpretation of the text.
“We will brick up the doors and board up the windows. We won’t let in a breath of air from the street.”
Her five daughters feel trapped and isolated from the world, enabling their curiosity to grow. Bernada is the tyrannical matriarch of the family, her anguish is evident and Kathryn Hunter does a tremendous job in encompassing that. The daughters centre around her and obey her threats, as she struggles with life after her husband’s death. Hunter captures her strong exterior with power and vigour, however every so often we see glimpses of her insecurities and pain, as she wonders how they will go on. Obsessed with how her family is perceived, her attempts to create a polished facade ultimately breaks her family apart.
The staging is significant, as all they use are wooden chairs that are regularly positioned in a circle, representing the claustrophobic atmosphere in their home. Repression is a huge theme of the play, Bernada understands her daughter’s sexual desires, but will do anything to stop them.
Each of the five sisters have distinct personalities, which is evident through their strong characterisation. Bernada’s eldest daughter Angustias is played by Nadia Nadarajah who encapsulates her insecurities, and desperation to be loved. This differs from the youngest daughter Adela (Hermon Berhane), who breaks through Bernada’s boundaries to display her true individuality. Chloë Clarke and Philippa Cole both give excellent performances as the bitter and gossipy sisters Magdalena and Amelia, and Martirio (Kellan Frankland) performs with exquisite exasperation as she forms into a wicked character.
Being a consistent narrative in the piece, Alison Halstead’s portrayal of Poncia is a reassuring constant throughout the dramatic piece. She is entirely wise and level-headed, Poncia is the only calming influence on Bernada, which is evident through her soft voice and stage presence that contrasts with Bernada’s sharp raspy tone.
It is a play that addresses many theatrical issues. There are numerous interesting and complex female characters, and the play itself is incredibly accessible. Graeae Theatre Company are described as “a force for change in world-class theatre that challenges misconceptions by boldly placing disabled actors centre stage,” and this is apparent in their superb production.
The suppression and lack of power are highly relevant and topical themes, as the women in the piece are confined within their house and suffer immensely because of this. They are unable to have freedom within their bodies and voices, which intertwines with the theatre company itself. The women are fighting against their own bodies and disabilities to express themselves, which is powerfully displayed throughout the performance.
The House of Bernada Alba is a thought-provoking piece of theatre that is told through in an imaginative and creative way with commanding performances from all the actors on stage.
On at the Royal Exchange in Manchester until the 25th of February.