Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

A mantilla does not a Spanish Lady make

The House of Bernada Alba

Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama , Bute Theatre, Cardiff , April 4, 2003
Coffee does no good to the body. Tea on the other hand is full of things that are good for us. Sadly, for me watching this performance was like drinking rather weak coffee not good strong tea.

Lorca’s last and regarded by many as his finest play was completed shortly before he was dragged into a field at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, shot and thrown into an unmarked grave by Nationalist sympathisers at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Inspired by real-life characters and described by Lorca ‘as a true record of village life’. A tragic tale of five daughters, sexually frustrated and yearning for love, held captive by their tyrannical mother who imposes on them a strict moral code born of her intense Catholicism. A virile good looking young man is to marry the eldest daughter, she has more money than the others but he is passionately in love with her youngest sister and she with him. This is a cause of desperate family tension that finally leads to tragedy.

Not an unfamiliar plot for ‘East Enders’. The intensity of Lorca’s writing and his deep human understanding elevates this stark realism into poetic and moving drama. Curiously little of this emerged on this occasion. I say curiously because all my previous visits to College productions have been extremely satisfying and at times quite exceptionally well done. For the first time I felt I was in the realm of an exercise for drama students and not a professionally finished product.

It was difficult to hear the words at the beginning, where important information we needed to know to appreciate what would follow was being set down. I am a great supporter of quiet speaking on stage but it must be precise and directly aimed at the audience. Whilst all the Spanish accents were sound they did not assist clarity in the early part of the play. Or did my ears take a while to become accustomed?

Wearing a long black dress and a mantilla does not a Spanish Lady make. This was the core weakness. There was no Spanish blood flowing through the veins of these women. The real Lorca play was far away, behind a mist that formed between the stage and the audience. The superficiality in the characterisations of the daughters made them all seem shadows of the same person. The actors needed to read the play more closely, letting its atmosphere sink into them. An atmosphere that is more real than real. Their emotions need to be more deeply felt, they should dig into themselves and their imaginations. All these performers show they have the potential to become great professionals. Things didn’t quite fall into place this time.

Catherine Golding in the role of Poncia did succeed in getting to grips with her character, an old family retainer who knew all that went on inside the head of her cruel and strict mistress and that she knew that her Mistress, Bernada, knew that she knew it too. Lisa Zahra had the poise but not the cruelty of a martinet, her stick never came down hard enough, her voice did not ring cold enough when she called for the gun to shoot the lover who had taken youngest daughter Adela, having betrayed the oldest one, Angustias. Sarah Dodd – Adela and Hannah McPake – Angustias were only able to sketch in the complexities of these tormented souls. Katie Hiam did bring a dash of colour and humour as the demented grandmother, Maria Josefa.

Apart from Katie Wix who did bring a touch of reality to her down trodden, weary servant, Gillian Foster, Alice Dooley, Mared Swain and April Mullen did their best in the supporting roles.

Director Martin Houghton, along with his students must have “can do better” added to his report.

In translation the mood and pace of Lorca’s poetry is sustained but maybe some of the colour and vitality of his original words and phrases have been diluted resulting in the actors having a greater challenge to meet to bring the dynamic of the piece vividly to life.

Reviewed by: Michael Kelligan

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