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Review: The House of Bernarda Alba

Lorca relocated but the pain is the same

Almeida Theatre, London N1

    Federico Garcia Lorca's final play before he was assassinated in 1936 by, it is thought, Franco's fascists, could be about all kinds of tyranny.

    The way the newly widowed Bernarda mistreats her five daughters might be particular to her Andalusian household, or it could be a metaphor for Spain's dictatorship.

    Whatever the message, Lorca's main objective was undoubtedly to reflect the condition of women living in a highly conservative, deeply religious society. Bernarda may have lost her husband but this matriarch is the chief enforcer of patriarchal rules, especially when it comes to her five daughters.

    The reputation of the house, and all who live in it, rests on their virginity remaining intact, unless they get married, and for most of them there is little prospect of wedding bells.

    Bijan Sheibani's production moves the action to contemporary rural Iran, provoking a whole new bunch of possible associations. The oppressive regime could be Ahmadinejad's. Certainly the stifling religious orthodoxy that hangs like a pall over the lives of the women is no longer Catholic, but Islamic - although the post-funeral scene, in which women pass in front of the seated Bernarda to pay their respects, could easily be a Jewish shivah were it not for the burqas and niqabs.

    There are no males in Lorca's play, but male influence is everywhere. It is in the notion that a woman can live a respectful life only within the walls of her home. It is in the sexual tension that torments the sisters when a handsome bachelor courts one of them while having an affair with another. And it is in the ferocious kick of the stallion which Bernarda keeps from the mares until she deems it ready to impregnate them.

    Sheibani - the director who led the Holocaust play, Our Class, to its world première at the National Theatre - is British-born but describes himself as half-Iranian. And, although it is hard to see his decision to move the setting as anything other than political, this is thought-provoking stuff without being laden with any particular message.

    In the role of the ruthless Bernarda, Iranian actor Shohreh Aghdashloo gives the production a core of hardhearted poise and cultural authenticity, while Jane Bertish is terrific as Bernarda's straight-talking housekeeper Darya, the only voice strong enough to challenge her employer.

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