The House of Bernarda Alba is considered to be Spanish dramatist Gabriel Garcia Lorca’s masterpiece both because it is a great tragedy of women’s frustrated lives, and because the playwright’s own life was cut short before he could produce a play to rival it. Lorca completed the play in 1936, two months before he was executed by General Franco’s rebellious forces for his sexuality and opposition to Fascism. The surviving play is a powerful testimony to the footprint of despotism within a family and a nation.
This new staging of The House of Bernarda Alba, running until the 25th of February at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, is a production by Graeae: a company composed entirely of D/deaf and disabled actors. Since the play, unusually, has an all-female cast, as far as I know this production offers the unique experience of seeing a story told wholly by disabled women. The behind the scenes team also consists entirely of women, led by director Jenny Sealey.
The House of Bernarda Alba opens as the titular matriarch (Kathryn Hunter) and her five daughters return from her husband’s funeral. Under the strict social codes of rural Granada, the unmarried daughters are seen as a burden on their family, and their lives are now further restricted by the requirements of mourning. Their formidable mother, who rules the household with an ironbound sense of propriety and position, and an ever-ready cane, orders them to shut themselves away in the shadowy house with no contact with men and nothing but sewing to occupy their days. However, their father’s death also means that Angustias (Nadia Nadarajah), the oldest daughter, will inherit all of the family’s small fortune. Pepe el Romano, an ambitious and penniless young farmer, seeks Angustias’ hand in marriage for her money, while also beginning a secret romance with Adela (Hermon Berhane), the youngest and most free-spirited daughter. The remaining sisters – Magdalena (Chloë Clarke), Amelia (Philippa Cole) and Martirio (Kellan Frankland), as well as Bernarda’s maid and right-hand woman La Poncia (Alison Halstead) – are left helpless, barely able to admit even to themselves that they are watching an unfolding tragedy.
Graeae’s production is consciously designed to be as accessible to disabled audiences as possible. All dialogue is accompanied by sign language and subtitles, and apparently audio description is subtly included in the dialogue, although I admit it was so subtle that I missed it – certainly I think someone with a visual impairment could understand the play pretty well. This production, as with all of Graeae’s productions, shows that disabled actors can deliver performances just as compelling as an abled cast. At the same time, it incorporates the actors’ disabilities naturally into the story, with the sisters’ translations of each other’s sign language becoming an important means of communication. The metafiction extends to the staging, which replaces a set with stencilled descriptions. The House of Bernarda Alba shows that there are no excuses for not casting brilliant disabled actors as frequently as abled ones – let’s hope other theatres take the hint.