Theatre review: The House of Bernarda Alba, Subiaco Arts Centre, Perth

A powerful adaptation of the famous play that explores patriarchy, sisterhood, maternal love and oppression.

The audience itself intruded upon domestic space before the play opened, walking across the stage to their seats. The cast sat around the edges, passive and waiting to come to life, parallelling how the Alba women occupied a home that was influenced more by external societal forces than any of its occupants. Tempest, a theatre company committed to centring women’s stories, delivered a provocative rendition of Federico García Alba’s The House of Bernarda Alba

Susie Conte’s captivating adaptation offered a smaller cast than the source material, developing dynamic characters attempting to establish agency in their constrained lives. While the original text has previously been adapted for ballet, localised cultural interpretations and film, this timely theatrical production deftly invited the audience to consider a society that is hostile in policing dichotomies of men and women.

It was revealed how the outside world of men was the most powerful force in the lives of a mother and her daughters, despite men remaining offstage and out of sight throughout the play. The audience gained insight into the lives of the Alba women, whose starkly sorrowful world was smaller even than the intimate staging. 

The choreography of human form and furniture added to the gathering tension without distracting from the evocative performances by Alexandria Steffensen as the matriarch, and Sarria Butler, Amber Gilmour, Shelby McKenzie, Amanda Watson and Amy Welsh as the Alba sisters. Each portrayed nuance and seasons of emotions and internal strife in their characters and their relationships within and beyond the family unit.

The cast demonstrated emotional outbursts that may have seemed like discrete moments of fickle priorities, but were often strands in invisible, longer and more complex journeys. Powerlessness compelled some characters in their machinations and conflict as the sisters vied for escape from Steffensen’s arresting voice as the looming matriarch, whose fearfulness at the fragility of their futures drove her to fiercely exert herself within her domain.

An overall mood of mourning for the loss of greater futures was conveyed through a modest set dressed with minimal fabric and predominantly monotone costuming and props. Alba women wore minimally adorned black mourning gowns with hair fastidiously pinned to be eventually unveiled, as the characters shifted from the picture of a devoted family to a household of women whose futures were bound to men and their choices.

It was an effective contrivance furthered by lighting that unobtrusively but distinctly shifted as different players and revelations came to the fore. The lighting changed from patchwork shadows evoking prison bars to a brilliant illumination of Bernarda as she wielded power over and for her family. 

Intimate details were carefully orchestrated. Humming crescendos, a dress as the discordant splash of colour, pools of light and freed locks of hair showed how each woman uniquely and sometimes frantically navigated the limitations of a society where reputation and inheritance could be the entirety of their perceived value. 

Read: Theatre review: The Bleeding Tree, The Blue Room Theatre

Framed in a story challenging gender roles in a patriarchal society, The House of Bernarda Alba saw a talented cast enliven the depths of six individuals and mechanisms of survival. It was a compassionate interrogation of internalised misogyny and classism, and the potential of love. Lust was converted into agency and passion to devotion or passive dreams for change. The scrutiny of layered oppressions was left to the audience to recognise echoes in present day society. The sombre and pensive conversations after an appreciative applause suggested the politically incisive drama struck true.

The House of Bernarda Alba
Tempest Theatre
Subiaco Arts Centre, Perth

Director: Susie Conte
Poet in Residence: Stejara Timis
Lighting Designer: Katrina Johnston
Stage Manager: Meagan Welsh
Performers: Alexandria Steffensen, Sarria Butler, Amber Gilmour, Shelby McKenzie, Amanda Watson, Amy Welsh

The House of Bernarda Alba was performed from 2- 6 May 2023.

Adele Aria’s reviews, poetry, and non-fiction writing has featured in Australian and international publications and literary festivals. A disabled queer person of colour, Adele is an enthusiastic fan of the arts.