Tuesday, 2 September, 2014

Published March 21, 2014
Iron Lady clad in lace lets rip with histrionics
Glen Goei corrals a stellar cast for House of Bernarda Alba, writes CHEAH UI-HOON
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Women power: Claire Wong, who plays Bernarda, leading a strong cast of veterans such as Neo Swee Lin, Karen Tan and Jo Kukathas in Federico Garcia Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba. - PHOTO: WILD RICE

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SPANISH playwright Federico Garcia Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba is that classic epic play with larger-than-life characters, where a country and a community's problems at large are encapsulated and shrunk into one long domestic scene. Put on by Wild Rice Theatre, the issues presented in The House were in turn dramatised to the hilt for that hyper-realism factor.

Directed by Glen Goei, every component of the production was carefully and aesthetically staged for the whole packaged experience. From the costumes to lighting and stage design, and the chorus and their choreographed movements, not to mention the strong female cast - the whole production swept one up with its "stage noir" feel.

But perhaps it was just a tad too orchestrated. Because although the attention to detail wowed, this reviewer didn't stay as engaged in the story as expected. After a while, the drama and the histrionics of the actors hit a saturation point.

The beauty of Lorca's play is certainly its universality and relevance to similar societies he was critiquing, and US-based Singapore-born Chay Yew's script also brought home the play, so to speak.

The House of Bernarda Alba's subtitle, one should be reminded, is "A Drama of Women in the Villages of Spain", and the story unfolds with the funeral of Bernarda Alba's husband, and two house maids (played by Jo Kukathas and Sharda Harrison) spit out their hatred of the matriarch who is anal retentive about cleanliness, tyranically pious, and supremely concerned about keeping up appearances.

Bernarda (played by Claire Wong) then imposes an eight-year period of mourning upon her daughters and they're not to leave the house of her father and grandfather because that's "the way" it was and shall be. Bernarda is intent upon customs and appearances, while the daughters each display suppressed quirks and repressed behaviour.

After the funeral, the next event is eldest daughter Angustias's (Neo Swee Lin) marriage, to a suitor who only wants her inheritance. Soon, it's discovered that another sister Martirio (Noorlinah Mohamed) is secretly in love with her sister's suitor, while he is in fact tangling with the youngest sister Adela (Glory Ngim). Magdalena (Karen Tan) is perhaps the most realistic about the sense of limitations and the role of the female, while Amelia's (Serene Chen) sexually repressed mind is also the most fertile.

With such a cast of veteran female actors, perhaps the oddest casting was Neo Swee Lin as the eldest daughter against Claire Wong as the matriarch. Neo was suitably restrained in her role however, and came across as the meek first daughter (of another father). Wong on the other hand looked to be acting the hardest in her role as a hard, domineering matriarch. Noorlinah Mohamed was the sister who had to flit between emotions the most - from jealousy to a bitter hatred by her wish to deny her sisters their suitor if she can't have him.

As the youngest, most tempestuous and least repressed sister, Glory Ngim played a convincing young girl, even when she seemed to be doing more "pronouncements" and proclamations and seemed more detached, both in the role and as an actor from the more senior actors. A bit of comic relief, though arguably out of tonal sync with the play, was ably provided by Sharon Lim as a friend who comes to visit the family.

An audience poll might reveal unanimous accolades for Jo Kukathas and Margaret Chan - both who excelled in their roles respectively as a know-it-all maid with a handle on every single family character, behaving more like a normal mother to the girls, and as the demented grandmother who acts as the voice of oracle. The greek style chorus - envisioned by Chay Yew in his playwrighting of the Spanish play - was impeccably choreographed.

The House of Bernarda Alba sucks one into a maelstrom of emotions but it's hard to remain immersed in that kind of heightened drama, when the characters aren't real but mere vehicles of messages. One can't fault the team at Wild Rice however for giving us, again, a theatrically dramatic night out.


The House of Bernarda Alba plays until Mar 29 at the Drama Centre Theatre. For tickets, please go to www.sistic.com.sg