Passion simmers in this House of pain

4 May 2023

Susie Conte’s adaptation of The House of Bernarda Alba is an intense journey into a world of oppression and suppressed desires, writes Rita Clarke.

The House of Bernarda Alba, Tempest Theatre
Subiaco Arts Centre 4 May 2023

Tempest is a theatre company championing women’s stories and talented feminist theatre makers.

They couldn’t have chosen a much better vehicle to display this intent than in The House of Bernarda Alba, written by the lauded poet Federico Garcia Lorca.

Originally in three acts and penned in 1936 at the start of the Spanish Civil War, it has been perceptively adapted and directed by Susie Conte.

It is one of a trio of rural plays Lorca wrote concerning societal oppression and suppressed desire. He himself was a victim of these, being gay and unable to out himself, and empathetic towards women whom he perceived as suffering under such oppression.

The play opens, silent and dark, with five women, dressed in black sitting on chairs.

It is immediately after the death of their father, and the beginning of an eight-year mourning period of confinement, in which their mother Bernarda Alba (Alexandria Steffensen) has ordered her daughters never to appear outside the house.

The activity of making their bridal attire, she states, will fill up their time. The irony of this is that of the five daughters, aged between 20 and 40, only the eldest, Angustias (Sarria Butler) expects to marry. 

As the play progresses, the reasons are gradually revealed.

Angustias, a daughter from Bernarda’s first husband, has an inheritance and is therefore eligible while no other suitor is deemed appropriate for the other four due to Bernarda’s snobbery.

The most handsome man in the village, Pepe, whom we never see, is the intended bridegroom. He is, however, loved and wanted by all the others. It is through this prism Lorca explores what happens when desire is forcibly suppressed.

We see only one room, which is illuminated (by designer Katrina Johnston) with such beautiful side lighting that the women often appear in their silence like Vermeer paintings.

They sit, dreading the tap, tap of their mother’s walking stick which heralds her every entrance.

Steffensen is magnificent as the sour-faced, cruel matriarch (of whom we have seen many literary examples) determined, despite the destruction caused, to live up to the standards demanded. In moments of self-doubt, she is brilliant in compelling our compassion.

In this sometimes surreal adaptation that runs for just over an hour, Conte seamlessly includes the infant death, violence, suicide, public shaming and execution, detailed in Lorca’s three acts.

Much of this occurs in the village which we see from the point of view of the confined women peering through windows, but the mounting hysteria and cruelty created by acts of this kind are personified within the house.

The intermittent tolling bell and intense cello music enhance the burgeoning tension.

The five daughters start to quarrel and fret whilst Angustias tries to prepare for her wedding, unsure of Pepe’s fidelity.

She has every right, as the youngest daughter Adela (Shelby McKenzie) is suspected by her three sisters Magdalena (Amy Welsh), Maritrio (Amber Gilmour) and Amelia (Amanda Watson) of concealing the fact that she is in a dalliance with Pepe.

Jealousy, rivalry and Adela’s defiance, which includes the wearing of a green dress made by Magdalena, start an outpouring of grievances. The five talented actors hit an emotional intensity which makes for moments of complete absorption by the audience.

Tempest has given this cleverly adapted play a heart-rending profundity, as no doubt Lorca intended.

You’ll be sorry if you miss this fledgling company’s stylish production. 

Pictured top: The five daughters in Susie Conte’s powerful adaptation of The House of Bernarda Alba, portrayed by Sarria Butler, Amber Gilmour, Shelby McKenzie, Amanda Watson and Amy Welsh. Photo: Susie Conte

The House of Bernada Alba runs at Subiaco Arts Centre until 6 May 2023

Like what you're reading? Support Seesaw.

Author —
Rita Clarke

Whilst studying arts at UWA Rita found herself working at Radio 6UVSfm presenting the breakfast and Arts shows, and writing and producing various programs for ABC’s Radio National. A wordsmith at heart she also began writing features and reviews on theatre, film and dance for The Australian, The Financial Review, The West Australian, Scooby and other magazines. Tennis keeps her fit, and her family keeps her happy, as does writing now for Seesaw.

Past Articles

  • Rewriting tradition with skill and charm

    It’s a privilege to witness the stunning dexterity of choreographer Raghav Handa and musician Maharshi Raval as they disrupt the traditional roles of Indian dance with grace and charisma, says Rita Clarke.

  • Straight talk reveals resilience behind anguish

    Despite its focus on the inhumanity of incarceration, Jurrungu Ngan-ga has the audience laughing and on its feet with admiration, writes Rita Clarke.

Read Next

  • Reading time • 10 minutesFringe World Festival
  • Carina Roberts and Gakuro Matsui in The Nutcracker How to watch ballet

    How to watch ballet

    16 November 2023

    If you’ve booked tickets to Christmas favourite The Nutcracker and you’re not sure what to expect, look no further! Rita Clarke has you covered.

    Reading time • 10 minutesDance
  • Reading time • 7 minutesMulti-arts

Cleaver Street Studio

Cleaver Street Studio


Cleaver Street Studio