House Of Bernarda Alba review – worryingly relevant adaptation of Lorca’s play

Sequestered in the grief-stricken House Of Bernarda Alba are the tyrannical matriarch’s five daughters.

The eldest, 39-year-old Angustias (Rosalind Eleazar), has inherited a fortune and it is that, her sisters believe, that has attracted the local heartthrob Pepe el Romano, whom she is to marry.

They make clear it is not her pessimistic outlook, hardened by her years of patriarchal, rural life.

Adela is her opposite, the youngest sister and said to be the most attractive.

She dances with life, is headstrong, and desperate to leave the oppressive trappings of their grand home.

Adela believes her only route out is her love for Pepe, but can the family, enforcing the values of the outside world, permit happiness for any of them?

The House of Bernarda Alba
The House of Bernarda Alba (Marc Brenner/National Theatre)

There perhaps could not be an actor in the English-speaking world more suited to Bernarda than Harriet Walter.

She delivers angular and fierce wit, a threatening elegance and a clipped desire to uphold “standards” as seen through her lens of pride.

She terrifies on stage while attracting a perverse sympathy as she, for a long time, ignores then confronts the disobedience of Adela, played with palpable energy, desire and frustration by Isis Hainsworth.

Merle Hensel’s set resembles a sparse dollhouse that takes on the qualities of a prison during their years of mourning.

A cross in every bedroom, they look like cells from where the sisters can grasp slivers of private lives and gaze longingly at the outside world through their windows. A gun hanging centre stage makes it clear tragedy is to come.

Federico Garcia Lorca’s play, first performed in 1945, nearly a decade after his murder by nationalists early in the Spanish civil war, explores how people can become their oppressors in a society hell bent on keeping people, in this case women, down.

The House Of Bernarda Alba
The adaptation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s final play contains two truly shocking scenes (Marc Brenner/National Theatre)

Martirio (Lizzie Annis) exemplifies this. She may love Adela dearly, but overbearing and painfully jealous of her lust for life, Martirio will police her younger sister vigilantly.

The adaptation of Lorca’s final play, by Alice Birch and directed by Rebecca Frecknall, ensures the story feels worryingly relevant.

But stripping it of its Spanishness surely does not make it feel any more universal.

A haunting slow-motion baying mob outside and the final scene commanded so powerfully by Walter deliver genuine shocks.

– The House Of Bernarda Alba is showing at the Lyttelton theatre, National Theatre, London, until January 6.