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Indigenous voice heightens tale of tyranny in MTC’s House of Bernarda Alba

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When actor Bessie Holland finished shooting the television prison drama Wentworth, she soon found herself locked in again, this time on stage.

The House of Bernarda Alba is a cruel place ruled by the ruthless widow of the title. In a contemporary adaptation of the1930s Spanish play, Melbourne playwright Patricia Cornelius transports the story and its vicious matriarch to Australia; a new world nation where land has long been contested.

Bessie Holland stars in the MTC production of The House of Bernarda Alba.

Photo: Justin Ridler

Arguably ownership is just one determinant of power, but it's a formidable one.

Federico Garcia Lorca's depiction of a house of entrapment was written in the shadow of the oppressive right-wing regime emerging in 1930s Spain. Lorca sets the drama in a stifling family compound, where he reveals just three narrow paths available to women in a rural village; marry a man who wants your money, stay home and choose a virgin's life or take a lover and be buried by gossip.

The all-female cast of The House of Bernarda Alba.

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After the old man of the house dies, just one daughter – probably the oldest and, by general agreement, the least attractive – will have the cash to marry and escape Bernarda's iron rule.

For this adaptation Cornelius chose Western Australia as the daughters' lonely outpost. Hot, resource-rich, remote. A mining mogul dies and women and money remain. Far from 1930s rural Spain, perhaps, but in other respects a similar world, where wealth can shape one's fate in an iron ore-fuelled state of opportunity.

The obsessions of rural Spain – land ownership and protecting one's good name – all allow pointed contemporary readings, according to director Leticia Caceres.

"Patricia was initially drawn to the work by the complicit silencing of violence towards women and sexual power," she says. "She adapted a character from the Lorca and made her an Indigenous woman who is part of the milieu of violence.

Director Leticia Caceres: ''Women can often be the worst culprits for misogyny.''

Photo: Sebastian Bourges

"When Bessie joined the project she raised the point you can't talk about Indigenous people and these wealthy figures without commenting on the fact they got rich off the dispossession of that land."

Holland says: "I'm Indigenous, my Dad's Aboriginal and I think it means a lot to everyone in the room that we're creating a work that reflects the truth. Patricia isn't didactic but it's threaded through."

Caceres says that despite the Australian setting, the play remains true to Lorca's story. "It is still in three acts, all the bones are in there: the fallout of the death of a male figure; the need to secure a marriage; the implications of wealth that's tied into an old inheritance that they've been living off, that doesn't belong to them, and it's suddenly in the hands of [oldest daughter] Angela.

"Yet other things don't apply any more, such as the excess of morality that's very much about the Catholicism of that period. So we've had to interrogate the feminist undertones of the work from a very different place where we've replaced religion with money and asked who is that figure of wealth in this country? Who are these women and how do they exercise power and control over us?"

Mining magnate Gina Rinehart sprang to mind, Caceres says. "It's not really about Gina but there are certain resonances for us in the story of this very wealthy woman. Gina Rinehart is also claiming land that made her wealthy, on Aboriginal land. So these themes are woven through in our version."

Bernarda's tyranny also stems from avoiding the gossips' prying eyes; from keeping the lusty farmhands away from her house of women. Her methods are brutal. After her husband's death, she imposes an eight-year period of mourning, effectively imprisoning her daughters. Adela, the youngest at 20, despairs.

Caceres notes that while the other plays in Lorca's so-called "rural trilogy" – Yerma and Blood Wedding – are more frequently performed, Bernarda Alba is more timely than ever.

"I think The House of Bernarda Alba still speaks to the way women can be entrapped within the patriarchal system. They can often be the worst culprits for misogyny and we haven't overcome that. If you're not prepared to interrogate the whole system then it doesn't matter if you put in just one female CEO."

A clear implication flows from Lorca right through to Cornelius' political theatre: defining a woman's worth by her sexual appeal has not changed over generations. Yet if the #MeToo movement finally promises to unite women through common experience, sisterly loyalty is notably absent in Lorca's play. Jealousy and spite corrupts their relationships.

The play's universality lies in how one finds, in any controlling relationship, the power to alter one's destiny.

"It comes back down to money and the way women in relationships can become financial prisoners," Holland says. "Their inability to break free comes at a great cost."

In Cornelius' adaptation, the names have been Anglicised and we meet four daughters instead of five. Even that roll-call is unusual; all-female casts are rare. In Bernarda Alba men are spoken of but never seen. Cast as predators, they are free to work outdoors and exploit their sexual liberty while the women remain locked in their domestic roles in what Cornelius calls a "bunker".

Just as Bernarda's daughters strain to be free of their mother's control, Lorca – a contemporary of Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel, and an outspoken, homosexual anti-fascist – yearned to live his life free of intolerance.

Caceres says the play makes her reflect on "how aligned the queer voice is to the feminist movement".

"Lorca would never have been able to do this play or talk about his own oppression if it wasn't through the reflection of the female body and shame and desire and repression."

Enduring his own sense of confinement, Lorca was eventually hunted down. Even as his fame grew, right-wing uprisings gathered strength and his hoped-for refuge, Granada, finally fell to the military. Two months after finishing The House of Bernarda Alba in 1936, he was killed by firing squad.

The House of Bernarda Alba is at Arts Centre Melbourne, May 25-July 7.

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