Bringing down the House

The group mind of my regular readers may recall mention of my former colleague C the actress, who left to find fame and fortune in the lights of the big city.

Actually she left to do a year at drama school which included a part in an off-West End play (a term I just made up; well, if you can have off-Broadway then you can have off-West End. Can’t you?). So she’s done the year at drama school and is just ending her run in the play. A group of us went from work to cheer her on.

The play was on at the New Players Theatre, just off Villiers St between Charing Cross and Embankment, bang beneath the Charing Cross main line. At various points there is an interesting thunder effect from above as the trains roll in and out. It’s exactly the kind of place Joey does all his shows in Friends.

The play is The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico García Lorca, a laff-a-minute exposé of pride, Catholicism and sexual tension that (Wikipedia says) “foreshadows the stifling nature of Franco’s fascist regime.” Bernarda is a proud, aristocratic, newly-qualified widow who declares eight years of mourning after the death of her not remotely mourned husband. She has five unwed daughters, none of whom is marriageable as they are the only young senoritas of their class for about 100 miles around. The oldest, despite this handicap, has still managed to get herself engaged. At first Bernarda is of the opinion that even the marriage should be put off for the eight-year mourning period, but changes her mind when she sees how disruptive the man’s presence is on the status quo. Best to get it over with as quickly as possible to get him off the scene. But letting the marriage go ahead just makes things worse, since the other sisters are at least all partially in love with the fiancé and the youngest daughter is having an affair with him. The maximum that can be achieved in infidelity is a snog and a grope through a barred window but that can still be quite enough.

One thing leads to another, Bernarda tries to shoot the fiancé (the audience probably wasn’t meant to giggle at the off-stage gunshot, but Lorca wasn’t aiming it at an audience of Brits) and the youngest daughter, thinking Bernarda actually hit the guy, hangs herself. A delighted Bernarda announces that you ain’t seen nothing yet, now we’re really going to get some heavy mourning done. (Actually she talks about “drowning in a sea of mourning” and makes sure everyone knows the daughter died a virgin. Reputation is everything – and, bearing in mind the barred window, it’s hard to see how it could have been otherwise.)

No man ever actually appears on stage, but that only adds to it. At one point the sisters are listening to the men marching off to the fields singing a lusty harvesting song, and both they and the audience are almost weak at the knees at the thought of what could be. As so often in literature, the way to make something sexy is not to have any sex at all.

A colleague who has previously seen the play advised me that “if you can get halfway through and not want to throw knives at Bernarda, you’re a better man than I am.” He’s a better man than I am – I made it about halfway through act 1. Apparently the play was finished in 1936 but first shown in 1945, which was a missed opportunity on the part of the Republicans. One showing of this in the West End when it was written would have doubled recruitment for the International Brigade.

Anyway. C has done her time and will doubtless soon be appearing as 3rd Body in Casualty, Worried Mum in The Bill and all the other things actresses do at the dawn of their careers. I already knew for a fact that she made an excellent Perdita and Sacharissa in the Discworld plays and I had no doubt she could do it professionally, but it’s good to have the evidence of my own eyes and ears. I suppose I can stop calling her C now. Look for Claire Dixon – which isn’t actually her name, but someone of her own name already has an Equity card, so Claire Dixon is what she will be known as.

Incidentally, less than two months after he finished the play, Lorca was shot by the Nationalists. It’s an extreme form of criticism but you can see their point. Franco’s tastes presumably tended more to the burlesque.