The house of Bernarda Alba is a home colder than a snowman’s pocket, which is saying something as Bijan Sheibani’s production sets Lorca’s Spanish classic in the oppressive heat of Iran.
The shifted setting takes a period piece and makes it contemporary; a concerning move when you consider that at its heart, Lorca’s tale is one of women oppressed and repressed in a male-dominated society.
With the men kept entirely off stage though, the most obvious source of oppression at the Almeida is the titular matriarch. In the hands of Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, who delivers her tyrannical lines with a voice as dry and parched as the dusty land surrounding her home, Bernarda Alba is so cruel, heartless and impenetrable that she makes Darth Vader look like Father Christmas.
Under her watchful eye, her quintet of daughters know nothing of freedom, of friendship, of love; of anything, in fact, beyond the confines of their home’s four walls and the rule of their mother’s bludgeoning walking stick. It is a recipe for conflict when the village’s heartthrob arrives to give the situation a stir.
Between them, the sisters are pictures of defeated acceptance, bitter resentment and fierce youthful passion. Yet they are all beholden to one woman’s despotic power and the strict guidelines for living life which are broken at mortal risk. This is why, of course, it is so dangerous to think of men in any sexual context. It is also why, when such an activity is so frowned upon, it is made that much more exciting and heightens everyone’s feelings.
The only warmth in this oven-encompassed freezer comes from Jane Bertish’s long-serving servant Darya, the only one who can stand up to Bernarda and provide a listening ear for her daughters. Yet even she cannot escape society or its expectations.
Adaptor Emily Mann uses this gruff, straight-talking but likeable maid for most of her humour, providing a version of Lorca’s classic that is ripe with wit and poetry. The description of the monstrous mother as someone “capable of sitting on your heart and watching you die for a whole year” sent shudders along my spine. Director Sheibani adds atmosphere with mesmerising music and a prayer sequence of oscillation and fluctuation; a sea of black to begin a play in which, ultimately, there is little to dispel this opening darkness.