Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The House of Bernarda Alba

Next week I take to the Gulbenkian stage with a host of other fantastic women (and a couple of men as well, unusually for this show) for our Autumn production. 
This one has been a long time coming, with a longer rehearsal period than we are used to, but the results of that are really showing!
The House of Bernada Alba, by Lorca, is a 1930's Spanish play, written during the Spanish Civil War when groups of women were starting to question their traditional roles within the household and there was a thirst to throw off the shackles of repression that was endemic throughout rural Spanish culture of the time, a rising movement that was forced into submission when Mussolini invaded Spain.  Lorca was a passionate advocate of theatre as a motivator for social action, and the ideas and ideologies expressed by the more rebellious characters in Bernada Alba, coupled with his own outspoken liberal views and lifestyle, were enough to get him assassinated.  He did not live to see the play performed. 
The House of Bernada Alba was first performed in 1945.  It has since been performed hundreds of times around the world, is studied by school children, acts as a social commentary on rural Spanish life in the 1930's and has been adapted for film and television.
It is an incredibly powerful and intense play, a far cry for the lighthearted and gay Hay Fever by Noel Coward we performed over the summer, but this is one of the joys of amateur theatre - you really get the opportunity to try out your hand at pretty much any genre and we explore all areas of the craft.
We auditioned way back in June for our parts, and I was delighted to be cast as Amelia, the middle sister in the household.  Sally, our Director, has worked incredibly hard with us to draw out our own, individual characters (as the sisters can have a bit of a tendency to blur in the play if you are not careful) and it is this intensive style of rehearsal that has led to a very strong production.
This is a more stylized version than most, with the traditional Spanish elements being used as a reference point rather than dictating the feel of the play.  Costumes, for example, have no particular time period to reference but instead look as though they could be from anytime.  The colour scheme as well is pure black and silver - no other colour is allowed to bleed through, except for Adela's iconic green dress and Maria Josefa's tattered and pathetic wedding gown.
We have also been incredibly lucky to have our very own set of musicians.  Greg, from Green Diesel, has composed an original score for us which permeates through the play.  There are no sound effects, no pre-programmed music cues.  All the sound and music is live, played from the musicians sat amongst the audience or created by the actors voices.  This soundtrack gives the production the oppressive weight of a thunderstorm brewing on the horizon and is extremely atmospheric.  I've heard the music about 30 times now and know the play inside out, but last night, when we had the full set of musicians for the first time, and the action was punctuated by the drum and the guitar and the discordant bass, I felt the hairs on my arms and on the back of my neck rise as though triggered by electricity.  Good lord it was spine tinglingly effective!
As with any production, we have become close as a cast, especially given the fact that we have had a number of drop outs, including having to recast Adela at very short notice (Amy rose to the challenge and was off book before the rest of us, much to our shame!).  One of side-effects of being incredibly cruel and bitchy to each other on stage means that off stage, more often than not we are giggly and affectionate with each other.  There's only so much tearing of each other's hair you can do before you start to feel bad, even if it is only acting.
The amount of physicality this play has demanded has been quite high.  We see women being beaten by walking sticks, pulling each other's hair out, pushing and shoving each other, slapping each other and being dragged around by ropes.  It explores the darkest, most vindictive sides of female nature. 
The play itself is very intense, dark and repressive.  Modern days audiences may find it hard to relate to some of the ideologies expressed by the more traditional characters, with their comments about loose morals, women without men, class and the role of a woman in society, duty and obedience, but it was these very ideologies that Lorca was starting to question and could see being challenged in the world around him.  Lorca, as a homosexual, had an sympathy for oppressed groups, and he expanded this to include women.  Although he was in no way a feminist, in a peculiar way, this is possibly one of the most feminist plays I have ever encountered. 
One of the major challenges has been finding moments of lightness in amongst the oppression and repression of the play, and breaking up the constant tension that pervades through the language.  Our challenge has been to find pauses, snapshots of love and affection between the sisters and their mother.  These moments are few and far between but this makes them all the more important, and as a group we refused to believe that an entire family could only feel hatred for each other. 
We have steered away from the traditional image of The House of Bernada in other ways as well.  It is rare, very rare to have men cast in the production as they are referred to in the script, but never seen.  We have broken that and have a couple of fine gentlemen involved in a variety of roles!  Just wait until you hear them sing! 
We also never leave the stage - when not involved in a scene we hover on the edges, just outside of the light and we watch.  We stand and judge, condemning the action silently and having sentence passed on us in turn by the townsfolk around who add to the claustrophobia.  No matter what we do or how much we squirm, we cannot escape the critical eyes.
This play has been a long time coming - three nights a week, give or take, for three months, but I feel that we have a really impressive show on our hands now.
We have two more rehearsals this week, one on Thursday night and one on Saturday morning, then it is time to go to Wye on Sunday to load the van.  We get into the theatre on Monday, ready for build, and then it is curtain up for the first time on Thursday.
Wish us broken legs please!

If you want to buy a ticket, they are on sale at the Gulbenkian Theatre.  Shows are the 6th-8th November at 7.30pm.

Photo credit:  Les Gordon, from a (non costume) rehearsal

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