REVIEW: The House of Bernarda Alba (Royal Exchange, Manchester)

© Jonathan Keenan
© Jonathan Keenan
upstaged rating: 

The House of Bernarda Alba is a wholly unique performance for a number of reasons. Federico Garcia Lorca’s formidable text, in a wonderfully uncompromising translation by Jo Clifford which is set within the distinctive confines of Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre. Perhaps what makes this performance so special is that it is a co-production with Graeae, an all-female disabled-led theatre company.  Director Jenny Sealey weaves British Sign Language, captions and audio description into the performance adding further meaning to Lorca’s rich text, while the cast of Deaf and disabled actors take centre stage to showcase their extraordinary talents and challenge cultural preconceptions.

In The House of Bernarda Alba, the Royal Exchange have peeled away the walls on a house during a period of mourning. Kathryn Hunter takes the central role of Bernarda Alba, an old widow who rules her household and wields absolute control over the lives of her five unmarried daughters. Hunter is dangerously deceptive as Bernarda Alba, her diminutive and fragile frame purely a distraction – she exudes dominance from the beginning to end of this performance. Ruling with a silver topped cane she instils fear in her daughters and those who serve her. At her most dangerous when she is resting in her chair – latent, unpredictable and deeply frustrated. Kathryn Hunter is extraordinary, exuding matriarchal power at the helm of a phenomenal cast.

Liz Ascroft’s heptagonal stage is set with seven chairs, providing a simple backdrop for the action as it unfolds. The Royal Exchange’s in-the-round performance space further fuels the enclosed world that the Alba daughters inhabit. The captions are shown on screens around the theatre; Jenny Sealey and Jo Clifford have moulded the text admirably to fully incorporate British Sign Language and audio description into the performance. This must have been quite a challenge but adds a further dimension to Lorca’s poetry. The mechanics of communication, or the lack of, becomes a striking theme.

There were strong performances all around with some beautiful moments shared between Kathryn Hunter as Bernarda Alba and Nadia Nadarajah as the soon to be married and eldest daughter, Angustias. Hermon Berhane gives an emotive performance as Adela, adding a sense of hope, sexuality and mischief.   

At times, some of the captioning seemed like more of a distraction than a help – as the screens were quickly shuffled through in a bid to catch up with the action on stage. However, I believe that these small issues will be tackled and resolved by Jenny Sealey and the team. Despite this, The House of Bernarda Alba is a hugely successful production – captivating and unique – a useful and expressive reworking of Lorca’s classic.


-Kristy Stott

The House of Bernarda Alba runs until 25th February 2017 at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre and You can buy your tickets here


REVIEW – The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven (Queer Contact Festival, Contact Theatre)

The gospel according to Jesus, Queen of Heaven
Jo Clifford in The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven
Date: 14 February
Upstaged Rating: 

The sweet powdery scent of incense wafts past as the doors swing open at St. Chrysostom’s Church in Manchester. Framed by beautiful arches and stained glass windows, smiling faces welcome the audience in for an alternative service – The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven by playwright and performer Jo Clifford. This thoughtful and engaging solo show re-imagines the Gospels with a transgender Jesus.

Running for approximately one hour, the performance begins with a sermon before the congregation is invited to each take a candle and move on to the brightly coloured rugs and cushions in the middle of the performance space.

When The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven was first performed at Glasgay Festival in 2009, it was met with anger by some members of the Christian community and it was condemned by the Archbishop of Glasgow. Angry protesters picketed the Tron Theatre, without reading the script or seeing the show, with one remarking: “You don’t have to go near a sewer to know that it stinks.” I was pleased to see that Jo Clifford makes a powerful reference to this metaphor in the performance and by doing so refuses to be silenced and continues to resist any shame and fear surrounding trans people.

Jo Clifford has a wonderfully expressive tone of voice, moving from a calming whisper to a rich tone loaded with tension. Candles are lit in a kind of ritual throughout the performance – by this flickering candlelight, director Susan Worsfold conveys a sense of worship with intimacy.

The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven is a passionate show and not without humour; throughout Clifford demonstrates the Christian value of acceptance and the show is delivered with a warm sense of friendship and tolerance.

By the end of the performance, many people in the audience were whispering “Amen” in reply to Jo Clifford’s prayer. The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven is a moving and touching show, perfectly illuminating everyone’s right to live a life free of discrimination, which I’m sure left most of the audience reflective and hopeful for change.


-Kristy Stott

Interested in finding out more? To visit Jo Clifford’s blog click here.

REVIEW – Anna Karenina (The Royal Exchange, Manchester)

 © 2015 Jonathan Keenan  - ANNA KARENINA
© 2015 Jonathan Keenan – ANNA KARENINA
DATE: 24 March 2015

The Royal Exchange Theatre launches its new Spring – Summer 2015 Season with a contemporary adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece, Anna Karenina. Writer Jo Clifford, certainly must have had a mammoth task on her hands in stripping back and making cuts to this classic, almost 900 page novel, so that the story and themes could be condensed into a two hour performance inhabiting the intimate space at The Royal Exchange.

Admittedly, I have not read Tolstoy’s novel from cover to cover but I am familiar with the main themes running through it. For this production Clifford puts a particular emphasis on love, infidelity and trust to capture the tour de force of Tolstoy’s original text, but, even with this element as a main focus, this adaptation did feel a little over packed.

Set to the backdrop of nineteenth century Russia and directed by Ellen McDougall, this adaptation of Tolstoy’s monster focuses around three couples and their experiences of love and marriage. Firstly, we encounter Dolly (Claire Brown) talking to Anna (Ony Uhiara) about her unfaithful husband, Oblonsky (Ryan Early) Ironically, Anna convinces Dolly to stay with her husband and work at her marriage. Anna meanwhile married to Karenin (Jonathan Keeble) gives up on being the dutiful wife when she is introduced to Vronsky (Robert Gilbert) and the two embark on a passionate affair culminating in her leaving her husband for her new exciting lover. Running alongside these two stories, is the story of Levin (John Cummins) and Katy (Gillian Saker), their relationship is a slow burner but ultimately, they marry completely for love – embracing the ups and downs of a true marriage.

“Love is just a better way to hurt each other”

The symbolism in Joanna Scotcher’s set is a stark but perfect delight. Train-lines cut right across the bare stage containing a channel of brown soil which runs between them. This design is aptly suggestive of the ground that the characters inhabit and the formation of the railways running relentlessly through them.

“If you cut someone from the soil, you damage him.”

Anna and Vronsky first lock eyes with each other at a fairytale-esque ball. They maintain eye contact through a sea of large, hooped pastel coloured skirts, in contrast Anna is wearing a plain black dress. Magnetically the lovers are drawn to each other, they begin to intertwine and move passionately but it all feels a little awkward. In trying to fit such a monster of a text in to such a short time frame it feels as though we are being raced through the characters lives, which results in us being feeling quite detached from them, their emotions and the predicaments that they have landed in.

“And trains that can crush us as if we are fleas.”

Maybe like the characters are affected by the train lines cutting across the stage, I hoped that this adaptation would reach an emotional peak and leave me feeling as though I’d been on a wild train ride, sadly, I didn’t feel as though this production had any particular destination in mind.

-Kristy Stott

Anna Karenina is running at The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester until Saturday 2 May 2015.