JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA (National Theatre of Scotland at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow) for The Scotsman 18.9.09
4 stars ****
IT’S A HIGH-RISK business, to attempt a radical update and relocation of a classic play like Federico Garcia Lorca’s great 1930’s drama The House Of Bernarda Alba. Set in a village in Spain in a time of fierce sexual and political repression, when the shadow of Franco’s fascist rule loomed on the horizon, the play famously uses the household of of its savagely authoritarian heroine, and the plight of her five unmarried daughters, as a metaphor for the state of a country in which love, joy and the force of life itself were suppressed, in an effort to sustain a culture of absolute political and social control.
Now though – in the search for a 21st century equivalent of the dramatic situation imagined by Lorca – the writer Rona Munro, and National Theatre of Scotland associate director John Tiffany, have boldly relocated the action to a penthouse above a nightclub in a rough, tough area of Glasgow, where Bernie Alba, the recently bereaved widow of a senior gangster, holds her five girls in thrall not to a culture of sexual repression, but to a cult of savage and cynical pessimism about human nature, and about the transforming power of human creativity and love.
As a scenario, Munro’s new version of the play places a sharp stretch on the original drama; some in the audience are clearly inclined to take this mouthy Glasgow Lorca as a kind of pastiche, too much like an episode of Taggart for comfort. And Siobhan Redmond, in the role of Bernie, has to struggle with the loss of the huge symbolic weight carried by the original Bernarda Alba; it’s hard, certainly in this performance, to see a hard-faced gangster’s wife with a gift for comic timing as a key representative of our whole culture. But there’s an intensity in the ensemble playing of Tiffany’s tremendous all-female cast – and also in Una McLean’s heartbreaking performance as Bernie’s mad, love-starved old mother – that carries this high-risk production through to a successful conclusion. This is a show for Glasgow, no question. But the questions it raises about the hard-faced spiritual violence of the materialistic creed by which so many now live will resonate far beyond this show’s home city, as it tours on to Dundee, Dunfermline and Edinburgh over the next six weeks.