If politics is about people—specifically the ever-fluctuating power imbalances between people in different situations—then Federico García Lorca was right to focus his “political” work on the domestic: there are no “institutions” more prone to power-struggles and conflict than our own families. This lucid translation by Jo Clifford offers us a timely reappraisal of Lorca’s final play, but it’s also an opportunity to appreciate the depth and clarity given to the text by its all-female cast and director Jenny Sealey, in a stunning co-production between Graeae’s Deaf and disabled cast and Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre.
Sealey has brought together a brilliant ensemble, with Kathryn Hunter’s riveting Bernarda as its core; wiry, fierce, sometimes cruel, and yet protective too
According to Wikipedia, the venue is the largest “in the round” theatre-space in the UK, but the Graeae team have filled it easily, despite Liz Ascroft’s set consisting of just seven wooden chairs—placed at the corners of a heptagon, linked to their immediate neighbours by simple illuminated lines and individually designed to reflect the characters of the women who sit on them. There are also two very low stools on one side; for “the staff”, notably Alison Halstead as head maid Poncia, employed by the household for 30 years and almost—just almost–able to speak her mind.
“I am in command here,” Bernarda Alba insists, but even the twice-widowed matriarch is later forced to ask: “Why can’t I kill you with the anger in my eyes?” That most of her daughters’ acts of rebellion are small and inconsequential isn’t the point: whether it’s wearing lipstick, a bright coloured dress or taking off a prosthetic leg, it’s the act itself that’s worrying. No wonder Poncia sees around her “a house at war”.
Sealey has brought together a brilliant ensemble, with Kathryn Hunter’s riveting Bernarda as its core; wiry, fierce, sometimes cruel, and yet protective too, Hunter seems ideal in the role. What Graeae theatre company more generally brings to the production is an added depth; not just a seamless incorporation of British Sign Language interpretation and captioning for the benefit of Deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences, but in using BSL as a dramatic tool. There’s no simpler way for Bernarda to express her power than by turning away from her lip-reading daughters; it’s so simply done, and yet so effective.