Much as plays need to be reviewed on their own merits, it is difficult not to compare this latest revival at the Almeida Theatre to the one at the Union Theatre last autumn. The Almeida Theatre’s new adaptation is visually attractive with the most striking and breath-taking opening scene I’ve ever seen on stage. It also boldly sets the play in an Iranian village in contemporary times where the sexual, gender and religious oppression themes neatly fit into the overall context. The scene where the women of the village arrive to mourn with Bernarda Alba and her daughters is powerful and mystical for depicting death, grief and the inability to counter conventions. It’s another unforgettable scene in this production. Bunny Christie’s set – the interiors of a rustic house – not only enhances this production’s stunning visual quality but it also gives the impression of the Almeida Theatre’s stage being much bigger than what it really is.
But for a play that is meant to be punchy and intense, this adaptation is, unfortunately, tepid. One of its weakest links is the casting of the five daughters. In the Union Theatre’s production which had no visual aids, the cast worked hard to depict the suffocating, claustrophobic tension between the five daughters and their mother as well as amongst themselves. In this current revival, the five daughters deliver their lines as if they are all individual set pieces – the chemistry between them can only be described as cold in a play that uses heat to underlie their sufferings. Additionally, their discomfort in portraying young Iranian women caught up between their own desires and society’s imprisonment of them comes through loud and clear. Adela (Hara Yannas), the youngest sister whose defiant actions meet with a tragic end, deserves a much more robust performance than the one we get.
This adaptation also does very little to explain why Bernarda Alba rules her household with an iron fist. She marches off to join the mob to stone a young girl in the village for giving birth while being unmarried but, instead of using this incident to offer a sympathetic understanding of Bernarda Alba’s behaviour, we get an evil queen caricature. Much has been written about Shohreh Aghdashloo’s striking portrayal of Bernarda Alba but for me the only worthy performances come from Jane Bertish’s sage housekeeper Darya and Mia Soteriou’s maid who provides what little comedy this production deploys.
Overall, this production lacks the expressed and repressed passion that we expect and that we got at the Union Theatre.
Until 10 March 2012.
Written by Federico Garcia Lorca.
Adaptation by Emily Mann.
Directed by Bijan Sheibani.
Performance time is 95 minutes with no interval.