Review: Rebecca Frecknall’s ‘House of Bernarda Alba’ Is on Fire

The ground is breathing fire, we’re told, in “The House of Bernarda Alba,” the Spanish classic by Federico García Lorca that opened Tuesday at the National Theater in London in a ferocious new version by Alice Birch. The show runs through Jan. 6.

Directed by Rebecca Frecknall and starring Harriet Walter from “Succession” in the imperious title role, it really is scorching. Lorca’s play about a tough-as-nails matriarch and her five unmarried daughters in 1930s Andalusia is regularly revived in theaters in England, but I’ve never seen an ensemble so fully committed to the play, which races toward its tragic finish with genuinely shocking force.

As Frecknall has demonstrated in work including that of Tennessee Williams and the Broadway-bound revival of “Cabaret,” she has a gift for reinvigorating familiar titles as though they were brand new. Her talent for bold visuals comes with an ability to collapse the distance between past and present, so that plays from a previous era speak to us in the here and now, making Lorca’s 1936 family drama as riveting as, well, “Succession.”

Merle Hensel’s pale, clinical set shows a cross-section of a gated home. Bernarda’s second husband has just died, and we are looking into the bedrooms — prison cells, really — inhabited by a household in torment that, by the end, will confront a second, more shocking death.

We catch glimpses of unusual intimacy: Angustias (Rosalind Eleazar), the eldest daughter, pleasuring herself, unseen by her siblings, or their dotty grandmother (Eileen Nicholas) retreating under her bed, as though hiding from an unforgiving world.

Conversations between the women sometimes occur simultaneously, so that the audience has to scan the three-tiered set to work out who is talking, and where. And in Birch’s version, they are a notably expletive-prone bunch.

Birch plays fast and loose with the original in other ways, too. The play’s major male character, a 25-year-old local stud by the name of Pepe El Romano, remains offstage in Lorca’s version, but not here. As played by the actor-dancer James McHugh, the young man bounds into view at the start, his physicality at odds with the women’s constricted lives.

Pepe is promised to the wealthiest daughter, Angustias, but has captured the hearts of several of her younger sisters, Martirio (Lizzie Annis) and Adela (Isis Hainsworth), and their competition for his attention drives the play.

Bernarda maintains that her daughters “get by very well” without boyfriends. That perspective might have something to do with the philanderers, and worse, whom Bernarda has had the misfortune to marry. It’s here strongly implied that one of them has bequeathed his wealth to Angustias to make up from beyond the grave for abusive behavior toward her during his life.

Frecknall has directed plays focused on families before: “Three Sisters,” for one, and last season’s starry “A Streetcar Named Desire.” But here she is at home with a play about a far larger brood, each of whom is sharply individuated.

Annis, in particular, is a revelation as the indrawn Martirio, who finds herself drowning in a hatred she didn’t know she possessed — and reeling from a major act of cruelty from her mother. Her adversary is the excitable Adela, a wild child who commits the sin of wearing green when the only permissible color is mourning black. In that role, Hainsworth, who played Juliet in Frecknall’s “Romeo and Juliet” this past summer, gives herself over once again to the consuming recklessness that goes with young love.

The older generation includes Nicholas as Maria Josefa, the fantasist grandmother who sometimes speaks the truth, and whose flashes of temper suggest that Bernarda’s own fury might run in the family. Thusitha Jayasundera is dryly funny as Bernarda’s long-serving housekeeper Poncia, who recalls her own marriage to a woebegone husband who liked to rear goldfinches — until she killed them all.

But any “Bernarda Alba” needs a formidable performer to take on the role of this most forbidding of matriarchs. Walter, an English theater veteran who has become a TV star in her 70s, is the name attraction and perhaps accounts for the presence of a commercial partner, Playful Productions, which also suggests a possible onward life for the show. Walter doesn’t disappoint, whether she is casting a withering eye at her children, or speaking disdainfully of the locals. Her favorite word is “silence,” used as a command.

But the actress’ sad eyes also hint that Bernarda is damaged, and that’s why she can’t help “policing,” as she puts it, her children’s hearts. “I ought to be haunting your dreams,” Bernarda says to her daughters at one point. It’s a performance, and a play, that live on in the head.

The House of Bernarda Alba
Through Jan. 6 at the National Theater in London;

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