In the current backlash against a lack of diversity in the casting of certain West End productions, the Royal Exchange’s production of The House of Bernarda Alba looks particularly forward-thinking. A co-production with Graeae Theatre Company, the cast is largely made up of deaf and disabled actors and the production is both signed and captioned throughout. More importantly, the tools that make the play accessible aren’t confined to the periphery – BSL interpretation is provided by characters onstage, and the captions spread from screens around the auditorium to the stage itself, describing the setting. Overall, this production showcases an impressively high standard of accessibility – for both audience and performers – that all theatres should aspire to.
Unfortunately, the interpretation doesn’t always integrate successfully with the performance. At times it feels like watching two casts, communicating only to those characters who use the same language. Sometimes the speaking characters repeat the lines of the signers, even though the captions displayed on the screens make this unnecessary – sometimes they attempt to sign back. The fact that the integration isn’t consistent is ultimately a distraction from the action.
Lorca’s domestic drama focusses on (funnily enough) the house of tyrannical widow Bernarda Alba, who is intent on keeping her five daughters cooped up and in mourning for eight years. Oppressed by the heat and their mother’s merciless grip, the girls rebel and turn on each other. It’s an all female cast (another bonus for theatrical diversity), although the influence of certain named male characters – the eldest daughter’s fiancé, the deceased father – is felt throughout.
Kathryn Hunter – who absolutely blew me away in Kafka’s Monkey – is compelling as the fierce and sarcastic matriarch. Even though Bernarda is an awful human being – she keeps her own mother locked up, and calls her daughters whores – she is the most entertaining character on the stage, and has some deliciously scathing lines that get big laughs. I occasionally wondered if they were meant to. Alison Halstead is also excellent as Poncia, the commanding head maid of the house who enjoys some influence over Bernarda (but not as much as she enjoys a dirty joke).
A circle of chairs is the play’s only set, with each chair representing a family member. This claustrophobic cage of furniture remains unbroken until the story’s dramatic conclusion (which I won’t reveal here). Lorca’s stage directions are used as audio description, and recorded in Hunter’s voice they add an extra layer to Bernarda’s control over the house. Buzzing cicadas and the ubiquitous Exchange drone sound effect represent the sum total of the play’s soundscape.
This is a story of violence, oppression, passion and rebellion. It should seethe with tension. It should pull its characters along to the dark finale without any sense of mercy. But unfortunately, it doesn’t. Although there’s plenty to admire and enjoy about the production, it lacks pace and doesn’t run as smoothly as it should.