Frances Winston takes a trip to the fringe for this impressive artistic collaboration
The Cube @ Project Arts Centre, 39 East Essex Street, Temple Bar, Dublin 2
5-13 September @ 6.15pm nightly. Tickets €15/13
This retelling of Federico García Lorca’s classic drama, The House of Bernarda Alba, strips the story right back and reduces the cast list to just two – the titular Bernarda (Clare Barrett) and her servant Poncia (Amy Conroy).
For those not familiar with the original play, it tells the story of the domineering matriarch, Bernarda Alba, who imposes an eight-year mourning period on her household following the death of her second husband, much to the chagrin of her five daughters, over whom she exerts total control. As they adjust to the long grieving period, tensions mount in the household, and secrets come to the surface.
Bernarda is a woman in her 60s as originally written, but here writer and director Veronica Coburn literally goes back to the beginning. We first meet Bernarda as a child of six, who loves nothing more than spending time with her mother’s servant Poncia. The two have a strong bond, but as Bernarda develops into a teenager, and begins an affair with Poncia’s son, their relationship deteriorates. Forced into a loveless marriage after falling pregnant, Bernarda becomes evermore bitter and resentful about her lot in life, taking her frustrations out on her daughters and once faithful servant.
Performed entirely in red nose, Coburn utilises the clowning skills of Barrett and Conroy to great effect. From the very opening they are expressive and hilarious, although the humour and performance get darker as the story develops. Both actresses switch brilliantly from the silly to the serious, and during the more intense scenes, you forget that they are in red nose, and are completely drawn into the moment.
The stage is simply decorated. Rather than recreating Bernarda’s epic house, they use a miniature model to represent it, and it becomes as much a cast member as the two actresses. Other than this, there is a low wall representing a fountain in the courtyard, and some tiles, which are a metaphor for the different stages of Bernarda’s life.
Barrett transitions brilliantly from excitable child to petulant teenager to world-weary woman, while Conroy does an excellent job as the loyal servant whose adoration for her charge turns to anger and disgust as the years pass. The script is fabulous, drawing you in with its humour, before hitting you with the drama of the piece, and even though we never meet the other characters, we get a complete sense of them, thanks to the dialogue.
At the outset, this appears as if it will be a frivolous but entertaining experience, but as the plot thickens the tone changes, and it becomes intense and engaging while still retaining its wit.
This is artistic collaboration as it should be. Everything works symbiotically, from the props to the music to the costumes to the writing to the performances. The power of the piece only strikes you when it is over, and it affects for a long while afterwards.
An inspired take on a classic, this is a theatrical triumph.