I would say that it’s quite unusual for a play to be transferred to an entirely new context and to work almost as well as its original. However, this is the case with Bijan Sheibani’s ingenious setting of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba at the Almeida Theatre in which mid-twentieth century Andalusia becomes rural twenty-first century Iran. With few changes in the new translation by Emily Mann, aside from the character names that have morphed from Spanish to being in the territory of Farsi, it seems to do so almost effortlessly.
We practically feel the heat and we see the cultural oppression – not just in the mourning outfits that the Alba daughters are wearing, but also in the way that a knock on the front door prompts the women to all cover their heads before they answer it. This even extends to Bernarda Alba, the tyrannical matriarch, who Lorca presents as demanding absolute authority over her household. A clever twist in Sheibani’s production is that even she must obey the strict codes of cultural conduct and it is only in her home that she is in control.
Shohreh Aghdashloo stars as the tyrannical matriarch, who is insisting that her grown-up daughters obey the period of mourning for their late father, by staying inside for eight years. With only the eldest daughter, Asieh (a superb Pandora Colin) being engaged to a man – ultimately because of her money and in spite of her unfortunate appearance – the rest of the daughters pine for love and sexual fulfilment.
Aghdashloo brings to the role a statuesque poise and an unwavering detachment from the other characters and her daughters. When shocking news is broken to her, or gossip shared, there is something blasé in her reaction that makes Bernarda all the more frightening. She barely blinks as a young woman is tormented in the street for abandoning her fatherless baby. She cracks a vague smile when she hears about a village woman who has been abducted and raped by the local men. Rather than a tyrant continually feeling the need to reinforce her hold on the family and situation through aggressive gestures and tirades, this Bernarda seems supremely confident that nothing could shake her authority within the household.
At times, Aghdashloo’s presence feels a little too much on the relaxed side and she perhaps could have benefitted from slightly more variation in her acting. And it’s a flaw of the production that, in spite of the context and the set-up being optimum, you never truly see the family reach a boiling point. Tensions bob to the surface, but then disperse, and you never fully see the extent to which sexual frustration and jealousy drives the daughters to behave like enraged caged animals. Combined with the fact that some of Lorca’s poetic writing inevitably can’t be conveyed so successfully in translation, the piece at times feels rather prosaic and ticks along at points like they’re all waiting for Godot.
I am pleased to see this powerful play being revived in such an imaginative way and, ratcheted up a few notches, it would be an even more disturbing and electrifying piece of theatre.