Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
Opened 21 March, 2003

The best productions I have seen of Lorca's The House Of Bernarda Alba have been those where the physical space feelingly emphasises the claustrophobia of the piece. In this respect the Orange Tree, being an intimate in-the-round theatre, is blessed. With seating never more than three rows deep, the entire audience feels itself to be at one with the location; ranged as we are on all four sides, in two tiers, we form the very courtyard walls of the desiccated, poker-backed matriarch Bernarda's house, within which she resolves to confine herself and her five daughters for an eight-year period of mourning.

Orange Tree productions are generally also acoustically clever, using offstage voices and noises to remind us that there is a world elsewhere. This is especially important and effective with Lorca's play, in which the outside world refuses to respect Bernarda's will and keep its distance: three daughters fall for the same suitor , the factions within the house shift and warp incessantly and with ultimately fatal consequences. Director Auriol Smith makes use not only of offstage sound effects but also of music ranging from the liturgical to that of Lorca's friend Manuel de Falla.

In Smith's production, the younger women are all at heart their mother's daughters. They know that there is a force of life in vibrant opposition to Bernarda's way, but each tries to connect with it on her own variously selfish terms. When plain, 39-year-old Angustias is the nominal object of the unseen Pepe el Romano's suit, Paula Stockbridge is matter-of-fact and even prissy in her satisfaction; when youngest daughter Adela captures Pepe's more fleshly attentions, Aimee Cowen fuels the character's passion with a destructive defiance; Leah Muller's Martirio does not come into such sharp focus, but is clearly driven by her own frustrations rather than any sense of loyalty or propriety.

Bernarda herself is invested by Lynn Farleigh with the necessary granite face, and somehow also with a granite voice. So resolute is this Bernarda that she fails even to realise the ultimate ruination of her vision; with her increasingly futile commands, she is not so much denying reality as vainly forbidding it. The nearest thing to a representative of life is, ironically, the grandmother, more than half-mad and at death's door but who refuses to stay confined; Sheila Burrell gives another of her gleeful elderly-disruptive character performances. And although our sympathy as an audience is obviously with the life outside, our physical presence and psychic concentration turns matters inward and inward, like a lens focusing the power of the play's hot summer sun until the fabric beneath begins to scorch.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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