Mistress of the House

It’s easy to paint, and play, Bernarda Alba as a tyrant: a matriarchal monster more concerned with appearances than the happiness of her daughters. Claire Wong talks to us about learning to love her character, and digging beneath Bernarda’s hard exterior to unearth her heart and humanity.

Tell us about your character, Bernarda Alba.

The play begins with Bernarda returning from the funeral of her late husband. She is now the head of her household, which comprises herself, her aging mother, her five daughters and two domestic helpers. She’s basically described by other people in the play as tyrannical, controlling… yes, very likeable! [laughs]

Did you know of the play before you were cast in it?

Yes, though I’ve not seen a production of it. When I did my MFA (Masters in Fine Arts) at Columbia University, I remember doing scenes from Lorca’s other plays, including the ones in his ‘Rural Trilogy’ – Blood Wedding and Yerma. We did that such a long time ago, but I have a very strong, visceral memory of the scenes that we did from Lorca. They’re just wonderful scenes for actresses, you know? They’re very sensual and passionate, and the language is vibrant and powerful.

What challenges have you faced in playing this larger-than-life character?

It’s wonderful to be playing this big, dark character. The challenge for me is to find what’s behind that. Because it’s not interesting if she’s just evil, or hard-hearted, or always screaming at people. At the end of the day, I’m curious about what drives her: what made her the way she is? I have to learn to love my character, because she doesn’t think she’s excessive or hard or tyrannical. It’s about finding that three-dimensionality in Bernarda: her own fears and insecurities, and perhaps even her charm.

That’s what I’ve been uncovering during rehearsals. I’ve found certain lines which resonate with me and that I am delving deeper into. She has a very strong sense of responsibility, a responsibility that she has inherited: she is now the guardian of a legacy, the house that has been with her family for generations… and I’m seeing the images and tasting the realities of her life, because onstage, it’s a stylised set. I’m beginning to unearth that and get that under my fingertips and my skin. Bernarda talks about that a lot: ‘I did the right thing for this house’. The house is a metaphor for many things and to Bernarda, the ‘house’ is everything. My character may seem very hard, and makes seemingly cold, cruel decisions, such as not letting her daughter get married to the man that she loves. But the point is that, to Bernarda, the man was the wrong person for her daughter, and as Bernarda loves her daughters, she is simply trying, in her own way, to protect her young ones and to keep the ‘house’ safe.

Bernarda’s softer side actually comes out a lot in her scenes with Poncia (played by Jo Kukathas), the maid who’s served with the Alba household for thirty years.

I’m very grateful to have those scenes, because you’re right – at least, textually, there is some insight as to what’s beneath the hard exterior. Ivan asked me a few days ago, ‘What are the two lines that come up for you in this play?’ Interestingly, they were lines in two different scenes with Poncia: “I am a good mother” and “I did the right thing for this house”. I’ve realised that those two lines are very key for me in understanding the vulnerabilities of this woman. At the end of the day, she really is just trying to be a good mother! She may be misguided or we think she’s misguided, but that’s what she hopes she is. She’s trying her best. It’s hard, it’s very hard, and it’s a world that is horrible to women. It still is, you know, in many ways.

We’ve spent quite a lot of time working on those scenes. It’s good because both Jo and I, as actresses, we access our tools and our emotions in quite a similar way. We’ve done some rehearsals on our own, without Glen, and we’ve just tried to tackle different aspects of our characters. And we’re still digging, you know? We need to surprise each other. And we’re still very open to finding things.

Claire in rehearsal

Lorca wrote the play in 1936 – do you think Bernarda, who demands that her daughters go into mourning for eight years, represents an outmoded form of morality?

It’s so easy for us to go, ‘Aiyoh, how can like that?’, or to say that we’re so modern now. When you first read the play and then you start working on it, you realise that it’s nice to think you’re different, but we are all, honestly, at the end of the day, filled with the same fears, the same needs, we’re frightened of loneliness, we all want love and security… we’re so primal. We’re the same. Human beings are human beings. Through the ages, we might think we are more evolved than our forefathers and we like to believe we behave differently – but how different are we, really? It is easy to judge a certain behaviour, or how someone expresses their values, and call it outmoded or old-fashioned.

There’s a fine line to walk with this play as well, because it’s so intensely symbolical. You can easily play it as a tragedy, or you can focus on bringing out all its metaphors and big ideas.

That’s the challenge for us. When you perform these archetypes and these characters that have become iconic in theatre, it’s kind of lovely because it’s big – it’s huge. The challenge is to heighten and stylise it but to also keep it real and rooted in reality. That’s the thing we need to find as a cast. For the audience and for ourselves, we need to be able to access it emotionally and intellectually: as a story that’s still relevant to me today. It’s got to come through: that sense of reality.

What’s it been like working with this incredible cast?

Many of us are old friends but, ironically, we’re so crazy-busy in Singapore that we don’t get to see each other, ’cause we’re always working on different things. That’s actually been really nice: to be able to come together, to see each other and just to re-connect. It’s fun! It’s also wonderful to be working with great actresses: to get the chance to find out what makes each other tick, to spark each other, and to support each other in a scene. The cast is very generous in terms of sharing ideas and feedback. They are smart, sensitive and fine actresses and we also enjoy our food and eating together! Very important.

Tell us about your experience of working with Glen on this show.

It’s my first time working with him in the theatre. I worked with him for the first time on his 2009 film, The Blue Mansion. He keeps asking me to do all these funereal plays! [laughs] It’s been a very open space, which I really appreciate. I just enjoy that energy, that sense of balance; we’re all very open about sharing – we’re all very strong women!

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