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The House of Bernarda Alba

March 16, 2014
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BernardaAlba1(photo credit: Albert KS Lim; picture courtesy of W!ld Rice)

Event: “The House of Bernarda Alba” by W!ld Rice
Venue: Drama Centre Theatre
Run: 12th – 29th March 2014

The Black Mansion

W!ld Rice kicks off the 2014 season with yet another addition to their Masterpiece Theatre series, and this year it is Spanish playwright Federico García Lorca’s dark and powerful piece “The House of Bernarda Alba”.

One notable element of the play is the utilisation of an entirely female cast of characters, and boy what a cast it is!

How they’ve managed to put the likes of Claire Wong, Karen Tan, Margaret Chan, Jo Kukathas, Neo Swee Lin, Serene Chen, Sharda Harrison and more together on the same stage is anyone’s guess, but I cannot recall the last time I had witnessed a play with such depth of talent at almost every single role.

Which was just as well, because the play was both sombre and hard-hitting, often demanding the highest standards out of its actors.

The story tells of the household of Bernarda Alba (played by Claire Wong) shortly after the death of her second husband, and how the matriarch attempts to keep a tight rein on the entire household of five daughters by ruling with an iron fist and imposing an eight-year mourning period.

The entire family is forced to adhere to strict traditions, and the daughters find that they are oppressed both physically and emotionally, whilst at the same time learning to struggle through vicious internal family politics.

The emergence of a suitor for eldest daughter Angustias, played by Neo Swee Lin, sows the seeds for the ultimate tragedy that lies ahead, as other sisters such as the youngest one Adela (Glory Ngim) and Martirio (Noorlinah Mohamed) find themselves also falling for the same Pepe el Romano, thus resulting in a complicated web of lust and passion which eventually leads to the play’s dénouement.

The play is adapted by Chay Yew to give it a more Peranakan setting, and the set by Wong Chee Wai consisting of stately Peranakan-styled windows hanging menacingly on the sides, with the incredibly tall and imposing main door at the centre of the stage, is both breathtaking and foreboding.

Costumes in a production like this obviously play a large part as well, and costume designer Ivan Heng rises to the challenge with outfits featuring intricate detailing on veils, shoes and jewellery, and not just for the main characters but for the close-to-thirty members of the ensemble as well.

While Claire Wong expertly holds court as the ruthless and tyrannical Bernarda Alba in a rendition which no mere actress could expect to easily pull off, other notable performances include Jo Kukathas as the all-knowing servant Poncia, and Glory Ngim, who perhaps comes of age in this performance as the torn and emotionally-charged Adela.

The all-star cast easily rises to the exacting demands of the script, although I couldn’t help but find it awkward seeing Neo Swee Lin play the eldest daughter of Claire Wong, as it didn’t seem to me like the two of them looked very different from each other in terms of age.

A part of me had also wished to see another version whereby Margaret Chan would play Bernarda Alba, with Claire Wong playing Angustias, and I think that might have worked just as well too, if not better.

But while those thoughts remain merely pipe dreams, what is certain is that “The House of Bernarda Alba” is easily one of the most powerful and moving plays we’ve seen in quite awhile – both in dramatic content and execution – and in the hands of the W!ld Rice creative team, this 78-year-old play has been vividly brought to life once again in manner which is both relatable and frightfully relevant to a Singaporean audience today.

They say the best plays are always timely and relevant, and “The House of Bernarda Alba” is no different.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 17, 2014 3:53 pm

    I agree that it would be interesting to see Margaret Chan play Bernada Alba with Claire Wong playing Angustias. Perhaps, the director refrained from casting that way as one would inevitably link Chan to her role in Masters of the Sea. He would want to avoid that sort of comparison it distracts the audience from what really matters at hand.

    • Jeremy permalink*
      March 17, 2014 4:01 pm

      I totally agree! Had the same thoughts too.

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