For a play saturated with talk of heat, Howard Davies’ new National Theater production of “The House of Bernarda Alba” takes the better part of three hours to catch fire, only to achieve a scorching impact in its final stretch. Until then, there’s much to admire, including yet another literally brilliant lighting design from the near-ubiquitous Paule Constable (“Don Carlos”) and the ensemble work of one of the most femme-heavy plays short of “The Women.” If much of the first half seems determinedly English in affect, auds could do worse than fan themselves, in accordance with the characters, until Lorca’s 1936 play bubbles over with a fury and pain that cannot be dampened down.
“Bernarda Alba” must be the Spanish classic most frequently performed in London, where it is still associated with a defining 1986 production, directed by Spain’s Nuria Espert, with a cast headed by Glenda Jackson and Joan Plowright. (It also featured this go-round’s co-star, Deborah Findlay, as one of fearsome matriarch Bernarda’s five unwed daughters.)
Davies doesn’t exert a comparably vise-like grip; he’s more interested in ambient detail — the leisurely folding of some bridal sheets, for instance — than in stirring a cauldron of repression right from the start. (And one perf, Cherry Morris as the resident octogenarian, seems to have wandered in by way of Cloris Leachman in “Spanglish.”)
But if this staging does a slow burn, it pays different dividends from previous approaches to the text. In shifting the focus from the widowed Bernarda (a lean and hungry Penelope Wilton) and her confidante-cum-servant, Poncia (the expert Findlay, hobbled only by looking too young for the part), Davies instead shines a forbidding spotlight on the hapless quintet of daughters over whom Bernarda rules.
Following the budding young male thesps in Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys,” this new National production gives equal time to the ladies, allowing auds to salute the city’s acting establishment — Wilton and Findlay in this case — and their inheritors on the same stage. Latter group here plays a dissatisfied brood who yearn for respite from a mother, and a country, that won’t let them breathe.
It’s possible, of course, to view Bernarda Alba as the stick-carrying embodiment of Franco-era Spain, in much the same way that Marion in David Hare’s “The Secret Rapture” was the Thatcherite ethos made flesh. A leap is then easily made toward Hare as adapter of this “Bernarda Alba” (the literal translation was by actor Simon Scardifield). Hare has long written particularly well for women, not least women under pressure, whether societal or self-inflicted. But even at his most compressed, Hare has never conceived quite the hothouse that makes Lorca’s play tick, all the way to its lacerating finish.
The first, and most becalmed, of Davies’ three acts gives little hint of the storm to come. Although beautiful on its own terms, with its Moorish details and golden hue, Vicki Mortimer’s exceedingly wide set seems oddly spacious for a play famously about confinement, even if the shutters on the windows do after a while begin to morph into one long cage. What’s more, Hare’s colloquial translation is freer and funnier than one might expect (the loyal Poncia identifies herself as “a good bitch; I bark when I’m told”) at the expense of any immediately propulsive grip.
The payoff, however, comes with an encroaching sense of the world beyond Bernarda Alba’s house, starting with the local studmuffin, 25-year-old Pepe, who has enflamed most of the daughters in separate but equal ways. “Great-looking,” or so we’re told, but never introduced onto the stage, Pepe is this play’s Godot: the construct by which every woman in the household defines herself, whether as an object of fantasy, opprobrium or naked lust that will lead at least one of the daughters to an awful end.
Looking as if she’s been eaten away by her own exactitude, Wilton makes the most of Bernarda Alba’s propensity for self-declaration: “I was given courage, so I use it,” and the like. If she doesn’t quite match the memory of Jackson’s ramrod conviction, it’s not this fine actress’s fault that the so-called “battlefield” that is this play ultimately belongs to the daughters, who together create an emotional tsunami that, by production’s end, engulfs us all.