Review: The House of Bernarda Alba at Arts Centre Melbourne

Raphael Solarsh

Money, pride and survival clash in an Australian outback twist on a powerful family drama.
Review: The House of Bernarda Alba at Arts Centre Melbourne

The cast of The House of Bernarda Alba. Photograph via Melbourne Theatre Company.

In a dusty rural town, the bell tolls for a man with a chequered past. His widow, Bernadette, locks down the family home. She understands the dire consequences of relinquishing her grip on the family affairs and she’ll be damned if she lets her capricious daughters out of her sight. Her deceased husband has left everything to the eldest daughter, Angela, and Bernadette knows that she must act quickly and decisively if she is to regain control of what is rightfully hers. Bernadette is a survivor but her daughters are forces unto themselves, unrestrained by the calculations of advanced age, and each needing something that stands both in her way and in support of it.

Bernadette is fascinating character. Her long hard years in a remote mining town and a difficult marriage have developed in her a brutal utilitarianism. There is a single poetically-placed blind spot. She is utterly convinced that the sacrifice she makes, the damage she causes is unquestioningly what others want too, even if they don’t know it. Is this just her instinct for self-preservation overriding what may be obvious? Perhaps, but it’s not totally clear that in the scheme of things, Bernadette is really wrong.

First she focuses on Angela, naïve and fragile but in a position of power. Bernadette gives her what her newly inherited wealth cannot buy her, a young doting husband, on whom Angela has long had her eye and who Bernadette can easily control. The irony of Bernadette doing to this young man, what was done to her and many young women like her, is not lost and in typical Bernadette style, she manages to make a situation of gain, somehow her sacrifice.

Next are Mardi and Magda. Both have struggled to forge lives of their own and Bernadette brings them both to heal easily enough with the threat of being forced on to their own two feet. And finally there is young Adele, vivacious to the point of bursting, the total opposite of her mother. There is a touch of King Lear’s Cordelia in Adele, earnest, innocent and lead to tragedy by love.

The need for love runs through the Alba house and once again it is Bernadette, the only one who rejects it, who manages to stay her course and persevere. Juxtaposed to Bernadette is her housekeeper Penelope, played delightfully by Julie Forsyth, whose plain-spoken wisdom and immaculate comic timing almost steal the limelight from the relative melodrama of the other women of the house. Penelope trusted in love and lost everything and although she doesn’t regret it, it results in her too relying on Bernadette for her material needs.

The House of Bernarda Alba is brutal as silence. Its beautiful production captures the oppression and claustrophobia of it’s physical environment, which leaves nowhere for its characters to hide. Patricia Cornelius’ rejection of love of either a saving grace or transcendental guiding force is a refreshing turn from what often turns into a cynical and inauthentic attempt at hope. Here, there are gains for those willing to exercise power and wear the costs. In place of Shakespearean romanticism there is gritty survival, living another day out of sheer determination.

4 stars ★★★★

The House of Bernarda Alba

Adapted by Patricia Cornelius after Federico Garcia Lorca
Cast: Candy Bowers, Peta Brady, Julie Forsyth, Bessie Holland, Sue Jones, Melita Jurisic, Emily Milledge
Director: Leticia Caceres   

Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio
25 May – 7 July 2018

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Raphael Solarsh is writer from Melbourne whose work has appeared in The Guardian, on Writer’s Bloc and in a collection of short stories entitled Outliers: Stories of Searching. When not seeing shows, he writes fiction and blogs at raphaelsolarsh.com and tweets @RS_IndiLit.

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