Saturday 25 February 2012

The House of Bernarda Alba, or A Show Lacking that Certain Spark

The last show I saw at this venue was the disappointing My City back in September. Regrettably this new production of Lorca's play is also a bit of a disappointment. It isn't that there's something hugely wrong with it – the concept in itself isn't at war with the text, the acting is perfectly fine, but somehow that indefinable spark that turns something solid into something truly great is missing.

Director Bijan Sheibani has relocated the action to Iran. It was not clear to me until I looked again at the programme note after the performance (and then only because the years of birth of each character are indicated) what date the action has been relocated to, but it would seem to be pretty close to the present day. Now it isn't that this relocation is at serious variance with the text – I can see how Lorca's examination of oppressed women might have an additional resonance as a result. But Sheibani doesn't really seem to have followed through on it. There's a striking stage picture at the beginning with the stage filled with veiled women after the funeral but thereafter the performance lacks a strong sense of place.

The second problem is related to Shohreh Aghdashloo's performance in the title role. The thing is, so far as I can judge on this first experience of the work, Alba is responsible, really more than an external oppressive force, for the miserable situation of her family and the disaster that ultimately engulfs them. She has to make you believe that she is a sufficiently dominant, terrifying figure to compel the submission of her children in the way that she has done. Aghdashloo just doesn't manage this for me. There is a problem when the head servant Darya (Jane Bertish) is the more compelling and authoritative presence. In fact Bertish's performance is the strongest in the play. What flows from this is that while the text emphasises this oppressed environment, this place where the walls are closing in around you, I just didn't really believe it.

Beyond this there isn't a great deal else to say. The five actresses playing the five daughters are all perfectly fine but their ability to really move me was hampered by my lack of conviction regarding Alba's authority. I also felt that again there was an unsatisfactory looseness about the direction in terms of their relationships to each other – there is a lot of subtext to this which Sheibani just doesn't sufficiently bring out. Here as elsewhere this is a show that doesn't quite achieve lift off.

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