Audiences will swarm like moths to the flame that is Gael Garcia Bernal during the Almeida engagement of “Blood Wedding,” the U.K. stage debut of the hot film star who trained for the stage in London. But not long into what turns out to be an ensemble production, in which the Mexican thesp in any case makes a belated entrance, the real raison d’etre of the evening becomes clear: the further directorial legerdemain of helmer Rufus Norris, who evidently has tricks up his sleeve that went untried in “Festen,” his 2004 Almeida entry now Broadway-bound.
Do the conceits work? That’s likely to be the intellectual debate surrounding the production, while more immediate post-show banter may well center on whether that amazing boy from “Bad Education” could really be as tiny as he seems onstage. (The height question is exacerbated by seeing Bernal sharing multiple scenes with a very tall Icelandic actor named Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson.)
On whatever level you take the evening, one thing is clear: As a creator of stage images, Norris these days seems nonpareil, even if “Blood Wedding” as an actual occasion feels strangely bloodless.
Not that Lorca’s play, premiered in Madrid in 1933, is exactly a snap to mount, which may account for the fact that it gets done in London far less frequently than “The House of Bernarda Alba” (currently in revival at the National) or even “Yerma.” Small wonder that Carlos Saura’s 1981 movie version, with Antonio Gades, was essentially a choreographic triumph as opposed to a textual one.
The play deals in archetypes so fierce — the characters include Death and Moon — that they defy conventional interpretation. Dance is one way in; imagery, at least per Norris, clearly is another.
With the help of Paul Arditti and Carolyn Downing’s eerie aural soundscape, gifted designer Katrina Lindsay turns the Almeida’s fluid playing space into an arena for shadow play and Dali-esque surrealist interludes (most of them courtesy of Assly Zandry’s naked Moon, who rises glistening from beneath the stage). These are enacted against various geometric backdrops that singly and together have an austere beauty, as if the stage itself has been singed with the prospect of bloodshed.
The result is a stark, encompassing strangeness — a rare English attempt at total theater — against which unfolds a story itself possessed of the concise fury that marks out much Greek tragedy. An Andalucian bride (Thekla Reuten), betrothed to Haraldsson’s sweet-faced, imposing groom, goes off instead on her wedding day with Bernal’s brooding, low-voiced Leonardo, a former flame.
None of the points on that particular love triangle, however, is nearly as commanding as Irish thesp Rosaleen Linehan (“Dancing at Lughnasa”) in the crucial role of the groom’s mother. “There’s a shout behind my chest, crouching, always ready,” she explains in the new version of Lorca’s script by Norris’ wife, Tanya Ronder. Linehan is all suppressed emotion waiting to burst forth, her rather formal speech at cunning odds with the surging passions that lie just beneath the surface.
Elsewhere, the production seems to be missing a beat, its energies directed toward a visual completeness (detractors will substitute the word “artiness”) that has drained away the life force of a piece itself heading propulsively toward death.
Speaking of which, the initial appearance of Daniel Cerqueira’s gently camp, wigged Death gets things off to a stagey start, as if the dark-suited actor were auditioning for the Emcee role in Norris’ upcoming West End revival of “Cabaret” rather than sending the play on its inexorable way. That grip, at the same time, is surrendered to a studied quality in a short, intermissionless evening that feels longer than it is.
While Bernal is certainly to be credited for taking part in a production focused on far more than himself — this show is the antithesis of a star vehicle — he’s not quite the authenticating figure of cyclonic passion one had the right to expect. (While not actually Spanish, Bernal is far closer temperamentally to the material than the intriguing United Nations of a cast put together by Norris.) He’s a compact vision of impetuosity in a fascinating if incomplete experiment whereby an audacious director continues to push theatrical boundaries without fully landing this particular play.