Yesterday I was asking whether Noises Off was the funniest play ever written: today I could equally well be pondering whether The House of Bernarda Alba is the bleakest.
The last play to be completed – if indeed it was completed – by Federico Garcia Lorca before his murder by fascists in 1936, it is the claustrophobic story of an iron-willed woman and the control she exercises over her five daughters following the death of her husband.
Decreeing that they will observe eight years of mourning, she effectively walls them up inside the family home, where pressure-cooked jealousies eventually reach bursting point with tragic results.
A powerful indictment of the inflexible caste system and codes of honour Lorca experienced growing up in southern Spain, the play with its all-female cast is given an extraordinary treatment in this production by the Belgrade’s associate director Gadi Roll.
The stage has become a huge, seemingly steel-lined box, its floor covered in sand and starkly lit by 16 fluorescent strips which are gradually lowered as the play progresses. It is almost as though the women are laboratory rats in some mad-scientist experiment in sensory deprivation.
This impression is heightened by their odd scurrying movements, suggestive of the kind of aberrant behaviour of zoo animals, while the mother, Bernardo Alba herself, moves with military precision in a series of right-angles, as though navigating around invisible objects.
In Fiona Victory’s performance she is a hypnotic, terrifying presence, hair pulled back, spine as rigid as the stick she carries and uses to beat her daughters.
The other outstanding performance is from Anna Calder Marshall as La Poncia, the housekeeper who can see where her inflexibility is leading.
But with its highly stylised choreography this is above all an ensemble piece. There is no getting away from the fact that it is a grim piece of work, but one that’s well worth seeing for a concept of theatre that, in one sense at least, is completely outside the box.
* Running time: Until November 8. One hour, 45 minutes (no interval).