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Theatre Review (Singapore): ‘The House of Bernarda Alba’ by Federico Garcia Lorca and Chay Yew

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Wild Rice’s latest production, The House of Bernarda Alba, will run at the Drama Centre from March 12th to 29th 2014.

Written originally in Spanish by Federico Garcia Lorca, and set in a village in Spain, this English version was penned by Chay Yew, and the setting has been changed to a Peranakan household in Singapore.

The House of Bernarda Alba tells the tale of the Alba family whose patriarch suddenly dies, leaving behind a maniacally strict matriarch, his wife Bernarda Alba, who imposes an eight-year mourning period on the household, which includes Bernarda’s mother, five daughters and two servants. What ensue are hidden desires, familial secrets and consequent lies that emerge due to the stress and friction of an unusual living situation.

Lorca’s writing explores aspects of gender, class and religion, and magnificently paints a picture of the Alba household that suffers because of Bernarda’s stubbornness in adhering to her preconceived notions of all three. Lorca’s work hinges almost entirely on the dialogue, and all of the actresses deliver their monologues and lines with great pathos and conviction, thereby giving us dimensional and fully-fleshed characters that entice the audience from start to end.

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The House of Bernarda Alba is absolutely a character study – and it speaks of Lorca’s skill in that he was able to bring out the personalities of so many characters, albeit melodramatically. It’s a true delight to encounter and understand each character as their inner thoughts and exposition leave them opened, naked and exposed to the audience – figuratively of course (except for Bernarda’s mother (Margaret Chan) who does bare her bottom).

In the hands of less-able thespians, the over-the-top and overtly dramatic dialogue would’ve been a farce, but this cast, a who’s who in local theatre, are able to rein in their characters when needed, and erupt brilliantly in the scenes that call for it. Sharda Harrison and Jo Kukathas, who play the servants, Claire Wong who plays Bernarda Alba, Glory Ngim and Noorlinah Mohamed as the youngest daughter and fourth daughter respectively – both of whom fall for a man they cannot have – and Margaret Chan who plays Bernarda’s mad mother all deserve special mention for this feat.

The production is directed by Glen Goei. The set by Wong Chee Wai and music by Lupus Af Intra have prominent places in the storytelling. Goei incorporates Af Intra’s haunting melodies and even uses a choir of extras (who double as mourners) to add ambiance to the huge but creepy Alba house, whilst Wong’s set is breathtaking with black and white Colonial-type structures and Peranakan furnishings that include an air well. At one point, rain fell through the air well and coated one of the Alba sisters in water as sombre music accompanied. It created a memorable image of a simple pleasure.

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One might want to avoid getting aisle seats at the extreme left or right, as there were a couple of scenes of which our view was restricted as chairs, mourners and the servants at various times blocked the central action.

Nonetheless, The House of Bernarda Alba is a showcase of acting prowess and if you enjoy plays that are character studies, you’ll love this one. For literature lovers, The House of Bernarda Alba is a one-stop performance that incorporates not only the themes of gender, class, and religion, but also themes of tradition and values, oppression and tyranny, scandal, gossip and reputation, desires and passion, as well as secrets and lies – all wrapped up in a dramatic tragedy.

Whilst some modern audiences might find the play too melodramatic and overwrought, or the comedic parts distracting (especially when one comes at the climax of a tragedy), for those who love classical literary pieces, The House of Bernarda Alba is a play joyfully filled to the brim with drama, themes and characters. And just like the Alba sister who bathed herself in the rain falling through the air well, why would you want to dip a toe into sentimentality, when you can immerse your whole self in an ocean of histrionics?

After all, as the great performer-writer Mae West declared, “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful!”

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About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

Ex-professor, Ex-phd student, current freelance critic, writer and filmmaker.