The House of Bernarda Alba

Issue section: 
(366)

Almeida Theatre

Written shortly before his murder by fascists during the Spanish Civil War, The House of Bernarda Alba is the last and most powerful of Lorca's plays. In a new production for the Almeida Theatre, this story of repression and resistance has been transposed to rural Iran. Unfortunately, I couldn't help feeling that much of the original play's complexity has been lost in this adaptation. The translation is more or less line by line. As a result, the dialogue often has a painfully stilted feel to it. This undermines Lorca's poetry and his politics. Without the courage to seriously alter the play, the only way in which the change in setting can be conveyed is through the slapdash addition of veils and ominous chants of "Allahu Akbar".

There are no attempts to capture the culture or attitudes of the Iranian people. Instead instances of brutality which Lorca drew from the grim reality of life in rural Spain are transplanted wholesale to modern Iran. In the end it feels as though we're watching the original play in its entirety with a caricatured version of Islam pasted on top.

The result is hugely unsatisfactory. Lorca's detailed analysis of the intersection of class and gender relations is obscured. In the original, sexuality works as an allegory for the resistance of the Spanish people to pre-Franco fascist oppression. But this new version takes that allegory entirely at face value, serving up an opposition between liberated Western sexuality and a predictable portrait of Islam as feudal and repressive.

It doesn't help that the key representative of fascism within the play, Bernarda herself, is played by the only actor with an Iranian accent. Nor is the acting particularly nuanced. With the exception of Shoreh Aghdashloo, who is excellent as Bernarda, the performances fail to convey the fiery spirit of resistance so essential to the original play's message.

This new version certainly had potential. The histories of Iran and Spain could have made for an interesting comparison. But the change could only have worked with a translation which recognised the differences, as well as the parallels, between the two settings. As it is, the result is just another dose of liberal Islamophobia.

The House of Bernarda Alba is at the Almeida Theatre, until 10 March