The Rabble's Cageling, a reinvention of Federico Garcia Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba, is a sometimes puzzling curiosity which requires diligence to unravel, writes Jenny Blain.
‘To be born a woman is the worst punishment’ was the cri-de-coeur uttered by two of the five daughters in Federico Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, first performed in 1945. It is also the catchcry which informs every heartbeat of The Rabble’s stylised reinvention of Lorca’s work called Cageling. As the name suggests, this production cleverly reifies entrapment applied to the female gender by its use of a sealed and claustrophobic cube to contain its message of cruel repression and seething passions. We must watch through a glass frontage at one remove, rather like peering at exotic creatures trapped in amber.
The inanimate analogy is close to apt for the opening 15 minutes of Cageling. The brightly lit white cube presents us with a tableau of five figures clad in floor-length black and ballet shoes seemingly frozen save for the agitated fluttering of a Spanish fan. The occasion is the solemn observance of a funeral, that of the second husband of the mother Bernarda Alba. The figures – actually Bernarda Alba and her four daughters – could be mistaken for cloistered monks, an idea reinforced by the drawn-out, ringing refrain of temple bells. Two daughters create a sense of mystery as they sit immobilised in a corner, their heads covered with large white kerchiefs like escapees from a Magritte painting (I have discovered that white veils were worn for mourning in the 15th century by the Queens of France). The effect is gothic, meditative, hallucinatory and double-edged: the prolonged stillness and persistent bells create both calm and a tension of expectancy. The intense black and white imagery pits notions of death and oppression against those of freedom and the life-force; it also neatly references Lorca, who saw his play as a photographic documentary. Its graphic starkness signals impending drama, and indeed any illusions of a ‘normal’ grieving process are destined to give way to cruelty and calamity.
As the players begin to move into a choreography of ‘right’ attitudes and postures demanded by a matriarch wielding a cane it becomes abundantly clear that being a daughter in the house of Alba – now an outback Australian property where the burnt body of a fifth daughter Martirio, victim of a terrible bushfire, is on display in a jar – is indeed the worst imaginable punishment. Five trapped souls subjected to a family tradition where mourning is de rigueur for eight years and where, according to Alba’s terms, no grief must be shown – no tears or passion of any kind – is not only the height of absurdity but a perfect recipe for disaster. The tyranny of Alba looms large. Driven by rage and loathing to persecute her offspring, she is a slave to tradition, conformity, class prejudice and a belief that a woman’s place is in the home. Possession of money makes her an impossible snob: to her, money confers social superiority, a convenient excuse for her conviction that no-one measures up as a suitor for her daughters.
Her daughters have other ideas. In The Rabble’s version the unseen suitor Pepe el Romano, despite his betrothal to Angustias, the ugly but rich elder sister – who has inherited her wealth from her father, Alba’s first husband – has allegedly rogered all the daughters behind the chicken shed. The daughters are without exception mildly deranged, in their turn undone by jealousy, resentment, rage and pent-up sexual desire. The sickly Angustias (Mary Helen Sassman) has grown a beard, apparently in protest. Amelia (Jayne Tuttle) is restless, frustrated; she becomes violent when beaten by Alba, grabbing the whip and beating the surfaces of the set. The behaviour of her twin Magdalena (Dana Miltins) suggests repressed sexuality: during a dance routine she appears to commit suicide by wrapping a braid of hair around her throat. The youngest Adela (Pier Carthew) is a rebel who finally breaks her mother’s cane and who is punished for being in love with Pepe el Romano: when Alba contrives to shoot her lover, Adela, believing he is dead, hangs herself.
I think it is at this point that Alba, her authority gone with the broken cane, reasserts it by showing us that she does, after all, have balls. Her character as played by Daniel Schlusser makes this plain with a prolonged headstand to demonstrate what Jennifer Hamilton has dubbed the ‘upside-down penis’. It’s a confronting scene but it does drive home the idea of the controlling woman as having internalised a form of patriarchal power. Recalling Angustias’ manful beard and Adela played as a sweet youth, the bald and frocked Schlusser as Alba is the most spectacular of The Rabble’s playful gender inversions.
Macabre as Cageling may be, and despite a subtext of ghosts and werewolves and dark fairytales, nothing quite prepares us for the final scene, a diabolical homage to Ovid’s tale of Philomela – she whose tongue was sliced off by the sword of Tereus, her sister Procne’s husband. Here it is Alba who, in an act of terrible revenge towards her daughter Angustias – it can only be because she has a ticket to freedom – bites her tongue out. The shock caused by this hideous act finally smashes – in a metaphorical sense – the glass wall of separation. In a strange way it also acts to dissolve much of the nightmarish unreality of the many instances of violence we have already witnessed. Curtain call – in all its seemingly authentic blood and gore – managed to find a sympathetic audience.
The Rabble’s directors Emma Valente and Kate Davis have made of Lorca’s prototype an artwork, a sometimes puzzling curiosity (a Rubik’s cube?) which requires not only diligence to unravel, but some prior familiarity with Lorca’s original. There is much inspired panache invested in this work, a brave revisiting whose novelty, while retaining elements of the visceral and morbid, adds an overlay of challenging surrealism. My only criticism is a set that makes for a certain lack of immediacy. That said, Cageling, like its predecessor, reminds us forcibly of the destructive nature of power in the wrong hands, male or female.