The House of Bernarda Alba (MTC) – theatre review

Hardly enough happens in The House of Bernarda Alba to sustain its 105 minute running time. Playwright Patricia Cornelius takes on Federico Garcia Lorca’s classic tragedy. Cornelius has transported the action from the villages of Spain in the 1930s to contemporary rural Western Australia. Along the way, she explores themes of passion, repression and isolation.

Lorca dealt with sexism and the misery of women in society. Based on this take, nothing has changed. The House of Bernarda Alba deals with threats to an all-female family from within and without. While dramatic, it’s also mordant; though at times humorous.

We are introduced to the dysfunctional Alba family on the day of mining mogul Tony’s funeral. Tyrannical mother Bernadette (Melita Jurisic) insists that her four daughters don’t leave home for eight weeks. She removes their phone privileges and Internet connections. They are a sad and sorry bunch.

The eldest, is bedraggled 39-year-old stepsister Angela (Peta Brady). Foul-mouthed Magda (Bessie Holland) is holding onto a secret that she reveals to another sibling, Marti (Candy Bowers). Marti, who had her heart broken once, carries a candle for 25-year-old town hunk Peter Romano (who we don’t see). So, too, does the youngest sister, Adele (Emily Milledge). She feels suffocated by her mother’s inflexible edicts.

Housekeeper Penelope (Julie Forsyth) has presided over this rowdy mob seemingly forever and resents Bernadette treating her like a servant. But with gluttonous gambler Tony’s passing, the family’s fortunes are about to be upended, as Angela stands to inherit the entire $87 million while the rest are left with nothing. If that isn’t bad enough, Peter Romano asks for Angela’s hand in marriage – even though they have never met. You can just imagine what all this does to family harmony.

Off to the side there are also the matters of the girls’ loopy grandmother, Maria (Sue Jones); and an Aboriginal girl called Rosie (another character mentioned, but not seen).

Julie Forsyth makes quite an impression when she opens proceedings at the wake by scoffing a few snags and paying out on the family. For me, she was the standout.

A number of revelations occur, which help flesh out what this clan has gone through. Still, I wanted more surprises because The House of Bernarda Alba became a long sit.

Marg Horwell’s minimalist set features timber slats, a stack of cooling devices on one wall and light boxes on the roof.

Although I was ready to embrace the outcome and I was intrigued in parts, overall I was left less than satisfied. The House of Bernarda Alba is playing at Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne, until 7 July 2018.

* I saw the first preview performance of the play.

Alex First

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