Alison Croggon teases out some thoughts on Patricia Cornelius’ remarkable adaptation of The House of Bernarda Alba at the Melbourne Theatre Company.
Note: here be spoilers
Much as I love Patricia Cornelius’ work, I’ll confess to a little trepidation as I made my way to the Arts Centre to see her adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s play The House of Bernarda Alba. Adaptations are tricky, especially when they do violence, as they must, to the original play: and transposing Lorca to an Australian context struck me as an exercise that was the definition of risk.
At first glance, although both are poetic writers, their aesthetics – Cornelius’s lyrical colloquialism and Lorca’s finely-tuned erotic surrealism – seem a million miles from each other. And our theatre history is littered with the literary casualties of adaptations of classics – David Williamson’s King Lear is justly forgotten by everyone, including the playwright. Sometimes the incongruities can strain everyone’s credulity. Sometimes the self-conscious nationalism of the whole project only highlights the self-regarding clichés of the Australian “character”, although I was sure Cornelius – a fierce critic of these damaging stereotypes – would have no truck with them.
But as it turned out, my qualms were misplaced. This is a glorious adaptation, ingenious and emotionally powerful. And director Letitia Cáceres has given it a remarkable production, with one of the best casts and crews Australian theatre has to offer.
The clues to the show’s success lie in the common threads between these two playwrights, both left-wing writers who are fierce fighters for social justice. Both have a taste for colloquial toughness in their language, and both bitterly attack the bourgeois theatre of their time. (This is the first time, despite a long and distinguished career, that Cornelius has graced the Melbourne Theatre Company’s main stage, and it’s notable it’s not one of her original plays). And Lorca was gay. His tortured relationship to his sexuality in a homophobic society gave him a unique insight into the oppressions of patriarchy, which chimes with Cornelius’s feminism.
Lorca’s sexuality long remained a scandal in Spanish literature; until recently, it was glossed over as an uncomfortable secret. And it caused his death. In 1936 he was arrested and executed, as confirmed in a 1965 police inquiry into his death, on the orders of General Franco’s officials. According to the book Federico García Lorca and the Culture of Male Homosexuality, one of his executioners boasted: “We left him in a ditch and I fired two bullets into his arse for being a queer.”
Written in the 1930s, The House of Bernarda Alba, Blood Wedding and Yerma, the “rural trilogy”, are Lorca’s best known plays. When he was writing them, he produced little poetry: as he said at the time, “theatre is poetry that rises from the book and becomes human enough to talk and shout, weep and despair”.
Bernarda Alba is about the newly widowed Bernarda and her five daughters. Bernarda turns the frustrated rage of her marriage into an uncompromising tyranny over her children. As one daughter – enriched by her step-father’s death – is courted, the others are riven by jealousy and desire. The youngest and most beautiful daughter becomes the mistress of her sister’s fiancé, with tragic results. It’s a savage portrayal of how women internalise the chains of patriarchy and of the toxicity of sexual repression.
Cornelius’ adaptation is set in rural Western Australia, on the property of newly dead mining magnate Tony Alba. There are four daughters on stage instead of five (more of the fifth daughter later) – Marti (Candy Bowers), Angela (Peta Brady), Magda (Bessie Holland) and Adele (Emily Milledge). Bernarda here is Bernadette, played with a steely focus by Melita Jurisic. The final two players are Bernadette’s senile mother, Maria (Sue Jones), who is kept locked up in the back of the house, and the housekeeper, Penelope (Julie Forsyth). This, by any measure, is an outstanding cast, and they tread the tension between comedy and tragedy with skill. Cornelius’s adaptation is often very funny, and much of the comedy exists in the performances.
Jurisic and Forsyth are the standouts, especially in their tetchy scenes together, in which their resentments and toxic mutual dependency strike comic sparks. But every performer has her moment. I wouldn’t have missed Sue Jones’s Maria for anything: her final mad speech is straight Lorca, and hits the tensile pitch between absurdity and tragedy. The daughters are cast with fine attention, each exhibiting different aspects of the same neurosis, their differences heightening the conflicts between them.
Marg Horwell’s witty set transforms the awkward space of the Fairfax into a Spanish/Australian fusion. Wooden screens enclose the forestage on two sides, sliding open to reveal a backstage area that Rachel Burke’s sumptuous lighting conceals and reveals. The décor is a bunch of air conditioning units and fly zappers that create a kind of chandelier. The effect is at once suffocating and stark: the slotted doors suggest prison bars, and the outside world is only present in Jethro Woodward’s sound design and Irene Vela’s music, as threat or longing.
Cáceres draws a formal geometry of movement across the stage that nevertheless seems to emerge organically from the action and language. This production heightens the lyrical and tragic elements of the text and creates moments of startling beauty and confirms my suspicion that Cáceres is currently one of the most electrifying directors in this country. Her production of Simon Stephens’ Birdland in 2015 was sheerly exciting, one of the highlights of that year. And this show, in which she draws from her own heritage to bring Lorca to a contemporary Australian audience, demonstrates how she unites boldness and restraint.
What results is a multiply layered show that becomes richer the more you contemplate it. One aspect I keep thinking about is the missing fifth daughter. Magdalena’s role in the original play is absorbed into the character of Marti, but she also exists as a rumour from the outer world, a reminder of crime. Here she is conflated with Rosie, originally Paca la Roseta, the “only loose woman in the village”, as Tony’s illegitimate daughter. It’s strongly hinted that Rosie is the result of Tony’s rape of an Indigenous woman, and her gang rape by miners is part of the sexual threat that surrounds Bernadette’s house.
Cornelius wisely gets rid of the religious strictures that underlie the oppression of women in Lorca’s play, replacing it with the ideology of capitalism. At the beginning of Act 2, Bernadette speaks ecstatically of her possession of the land, a speech that rehearses all the colonial tropes of Terra Nullius, the land that was nothing until the Europeans came along and released its potential:
I’ve got you. I’ve got you. Your mine, your mine, your mine.… Brought here a young bride to a lonely lonely life in a pitiful land, an unwelcoming place, a wasteland, an empty, dreadful and ancient land which had sat for millions of years, utterly useless, calling out for someone to come along and do something with it; make something of it, for someone to lift its skirt and its layers of petticoats and reveal the treasure beneath them. Lying there, waiting, for the taking. For the taking. For the taking.
Even in Bernadette’s speech, the truth lies in plain sight. The pun of “you’re mine” with “your mine” conflates Bernadette’s greedy possession into a rape of both of peoples and land, exposing Tony Alba’s ruthless exploitation and despoliation of a fragile ecology to plunder “the treasure beneath”. Rosie, the embodiment of atrocity, can’t be allowed in the house: instead she wails outside, banging on the door, demanding acknowledgement: a reminder of histories that everyone knows but nobody wants to talk about.
And this history of atrocity is the root of the silence that Bernadette mandates at the end, which is almost identical in both plays, with one telling difference. In Lorca’s version, the adulterous daughter must be said to have died a virgin: her affair is the scandal that must be kept secret. Cornelius opens this out to a wider proscription:
Nothing is to be said about the cause of our sadness. Silence. Do you hear me? Silence, I said.
It’s perhaps the most Australian part of the play. We must never speak about the cause of our sadness. We must never speak.
The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico García Lorca, adapted by Patricia Cornelius, directed by Letitia Cáceres. Set and costumes by Marg Horwell, lighting by Rachel Burke, sound design by Jethro Woodward, composition by Irene Vela. Performed by Candy Bowers, Peta Brady, Julie Forsyth, Bessie Holland, Sue Jones, Melita Jurisic and Emily Milledge. Melbourne Theatre Company at the Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne, until July 7. Bookings
Contains coarse language, sexual references, mature themes and use of herbal cigarettes. Wheelchair access and Companion Cards are available. Hearing assistance can be provided for all productions in the form of a closed system Listen Pack at Southbank Theatre, and an FM Hearing Loop or Listen Pack at Arts Centre Melbourne. There is no extra charge for this service, simply ask theatre staff for assistance when you arrive.
Access performances: Audio description performances at Tuesday June 19, 6.30pm and Saturday June 23, 4pm. Auslan description on Saturday June 30, 4pm. Captioned performance Thursday June 21, 8pm.