The House of Bernada Alba

(This review appeared in The EastAfrican October 31-November 6, 2011)

Shiviske Shivishi, Margaret Karanja and Njoki Kagwanja in The House of Bernada Alba
Bernada Alba’s husband has died and Bernada has imposed an eight-year period of mourning on her household. This is the setting of the last play written by the Spanish dramatist Frederico García Lorca (1898-1936) just two months before his death, which I watched at Phoenix Theatre on 20th October.

Njoki Ngumi’s portrayal of the hard-hearted 60-year-old matriarch Bernada is chillingly precise. Angustius (Njoki Kagwanja), the eldest of the five daughters, whose name means ‘anguish’ in Spanish, ignites a lot of jealousy amongst her sisters as, not only does she already have a handsome inheritance from her father, Bernada’s first husband, but has also been bequeathed the lion’s share of inheritance by her step-father, whose death they are mourning.

Her engagement to the unseen character Pepe el Romano further fuels her sisters’ resentment, especially the youngest, Adela (Evelyn Gitonga) who is already in love with Pepe and who goes on to have a clandestine relationship with him, bringing her life to a tragic end, when the affair is discovered by her mother.

The play adapted to a rural, Kenyan, coastal setting unfolds almost in real time, taking the audience through the enormity of time that the characters endure. It is a play whose action depends almost entirely on the text and the director, Millicent Ogutu has shown great skill in directing, giving the play an appropriate pace, drawing a lot from the symbolism that is already manifest in the play to direct the characters, like having the introverted and emotionally bruised Martirio (Valentine Kamau) sit, for most of the time, at a rather hidden corner of the terrace.

The play is, to me, very reminiscent of a production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters by the award-winning Russian director Lev Dodin which I watched in St Petersburg early this year in which the action takes place in and around the house of the Prozorov family.  Like in Three Sisters, time has a dominant, overbearing presence in The House. It seems to stand still and prolong the suffering and oppression of the characters trapped in their own house. They watch the events of the world around them through their windows, like caged birds.

Like the title suggests, the play is about the house of Bernada Alba and though the setting is mostly in the exterior of the house, a lot of the action takes place inside the house. The house has an almost autonomous presence, like a silent character and Ogutu’s production succeeds in reinforcing the significance of the house through the blocking of the characters.

Tracy Mugo, Esther Neema and Njoki Ngumi in The House of Bernada Alba
The all-female cast portrays the misery of living under the enslaving tyranny of their mother and is symbolic of the oppression that women bring upon themselves for the sake of appearances and social standing.

Maria Josefa, Bernada’s senile mother articulates this misery in her insane yet truthful statement, “No, I won’t be quiet. I don’t want to see these single women, foaming at the mouth for marriage, their hearts turning to dust, and I want to go back to my village. Bernarda, I want a man to marry and be happy with!”

Quashed identity, wasted youth, sexual suppression and meaningless existence loom over all the characters with the exception of the housekeeper Pontia whose zest for life, exuberance and craftiness are very aptly depicted by Margaret Karanja.

In a manner similar to the Phoenix adaptation of Plautus’ I Menaechmi in September last year, thecast blend Swahili words and intonation with the English text, giving the play a believable authenticity, but certain themes in the play, like dowry (as opposed to bride price in our culture) and predominant Catholicism underpin it’s Spanish origin.

© Anne Manyara 2011

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