Since it debuted in March 1945, The House of Bernarda Alba has come to be regarded as one of the most important plays of its age. Written by Federico García Lorca, who subtitled the piece “a drama of women in the villages of Spain”, it tells the story of Bernarda and her family in the wake of her husband’s death. Now, a fresh adaptation is being brought to Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre by director Jenny Sealey and Graeae Theatre Company.
Sealey is well aware of the rare opportunities afforded by a play with an all-female cast. “Being a woman, being a daughter, a sister, a partner or a mother, it’s a lifelong exploration,” she says.
“You never stop understanding what it means. Being able to do this play allows all of us to revisit our feelings about being a woman. It’s a fascinating play to do, because it allows us space and time with ourselves and with each other to continue our learning.”
The new translation of Lorca, by playwright Jo Clifford, isn’t completely explicit in its setting. “It’s not set in 1930s Spain, but it has that atmosphere,” Sealey says. “It could be any time, in a way. What’s really sad is that the politics of difference are the same today. You’re not allowed to be different.”
It’s an issue close to Sealey’s heart. She herself is deaf, and Graeae Theatre Company has a stated mission to “boldly place deaf and disabled artists centre stage in a diversity of new and existing plays”.
With their work, they seek to explore the “aesthetics of access”, making tools such as audio description and British Sign Language central to their creative process rather than tacked on as an afterthought.
“It’s about how theatre throws up what those aesthetics can be. It’s never something you put on to it.”
In Lorca’s play, there’s an unseen male character, Pepe, who has caught the eye of Bernarda’s daughters. During rehearsals, this made for some fascinating discussions between Sealey and her cast.
“We talked about the image of disabled women and the idea of attractiveness to men. They had questions I’d not thought about, relating to their own struggles. We’re not necessarily making it implicit in the play, but it’s such a body-fascist world that we all have to live in. It’s vile, the world out there, in terms of perception of women. If you’re a physically disabled woman, you’ve got a whole other layer that you’ve got to battle against.”
Playing the main role of Bernarda is acclaimed actor Kathryn Hunter. Sealey, Hunter and Bernarda Alba go way back. “Kathryn and I did workshops on this about 17 or 18 years ago with a group of 20 disabled women. We started to just unpack it, but also to talk about what it means to be a deaf or disabled woman. It was so meaty. It was just glorious, really, and we thought: ‘Right, we need to get this into the Graeae programme.’”
The show is a major undertaking and while collaborators were being sought, it was postponed as other productions appeared elsewhere. Eventually, the Royal Exchange’s Sarah Frankcom offered to programme it. “As soon as Sarah said ‘OK, let’s do it’, I was straight on the text to Kathryn saying ‘Please..!’. And she came straight back – ‘Yes.’”
The House of Bernarda Alba, until 25 February, Manchester Royal Exchange
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