Unveiling the daughters of Casa Bernarda

By Jo TanEvents - 18 February 2014 1:44 PM | Updated 1:44 PM

Unveiling the daughters of Casa Bernarda

One lucky man surrounded by at least forty fabulous females, all who must do his bidding. No, it's not Hugh Hefner and his mansion of Playboy bunnies, but movie/theatre director Glen Goei directing the all-female play, ‘The House of Bernarda Alba’.

Produced by W!ld Rice, ‘The House of Bernarda Alba’ takes place at the Drama Centre Theatre, 12-29 March.

“I've been surrounded by women all my life,” smiles the rakish 51 year-old, who, in the theatre scene, has hitherto has been better known for directing predominantly male productions like the acclaimed ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, with prolific, decidedly manly actors playing Gwendolen, Cecily and Lady Bracknell. “I'm the only son out of three elder sisters, and many of my friends are female. I've spent my life preparing for this production of fifty women.” Yet, being gloriously outnumbered by girls is where Goei's similarity to Hugh ends: ‘The House of Bernarda Alba’is certainly no fleshfest – rather the opposite. 

“This play is dark,” Goei states unequivocally. “It begins with the death of the patriarch in the elite Alba household, under whose reign the matriach, Bernarda, and their five daughters have been oppressed. You'd think Bernarda would finally free herself, and the girls, from the oppression. But instead she reinforces the patriarchal system, she perpetuates it.” To keep up appearances during the mourning period, Bernada Alba seals off her household for seven years, keeping her daughters in the mansion and away from male contact, love, and any chance at their own lives. 

“It's about patriarchy, it's about keeping up appearances, about artificial moralism. It's about elite households like Bernada's, the 'haves', looking down on everyone outside, 'the have-nots', the growing underclass. And it's about oppressed people knowingly or unknowingly perpetuating the very system that oppresses them, when they have a choice not to be victims,” says Goei matter of factly. “I've wanted to do this play since 1990, but am finally doing it after twenty years because all this really resonates with how I feel about Singapore now. It's up to you to interpret how.” 

‘Bernarda Alba’stars three generations of local leading ladies, including Margaret Chan and Neo Swee Lin, Karen Tan, Claire Wong and Noorlina Mohamed, as well as twentysomethings Glory Ngim and Sharda Harrison. “I've had the opportunity to work with Margaret, one of the first generation of local actresses when the theatre scene started here,” Goei reflects. “I've also worked with the second generation of actresses, those about my age. Now is my opportunity to work with the third generation.” In fact, this production will feature not just these actresses, but at least forty other fresh female faces, from both Singapore and overseas.

“I love the idea of having a chorus, an ensemble of actors,” Goei reveals. “They're going to help me by playing the ever-present outsiders, and the underclass, that constantly surround the image-conscious Albas. They may be looked down on by the Albas, but these poor people have power over them, at the same time. And when we called for auditions for this chorus, the response was overwhelming: we have non-actors from the community who just love theatre, but also an RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) actress. We have actresses that are black, white, Malay, Indian, Chinese... everything. It's part of W!ld Rice's outreach and it's all very exciting.”

Fittingly, the classic Spanish script will be taken and set in contemporary, multi-racial Singapore, with the Albas being a Peranakan household with lots of money and Catholic morals. “It fits neatly. Trace the history of the Peranakans, you realise a lot of our elite come from those families, and many Peranakans are Catholic. It's also very Peranakan to want to keep up appearances the way the Albas do,” Goei explains.   

‘Bernarda Alba's’extravagance and sheer scale onstage is a fitting way to make a lasting impact before W!ld Rice takes a few months’ break from the stage. “We're taking a hiatus because we hope to build our own black box (a more intimate theatre space, usually with no proscenium separating the audience from the actors). Right now, we spend money on hiring theatres and often have to do more commercial, money-making shows, but once we have that, hopefully we can do more experimental stuff. We also hope to groom new writers and directors and give that space to them.”

“Personally, I've always wanted to do smaller, more experimental, more adventurous work. Given the fact the financials for those don't really work in Singapore, you very rarely see as dark a play as ‘Bernarda Alba’. But I think local audiences now are sophisticated enough and they're ready for something a bit meatier. Particularly when it resonates with us as much as this show does.”

‘The House of Bernarda Alba’ | Date: 12-29 Mar | Time: Tue-Fri, 8pm; Sat, 3pm & 8pm; Sun, 2pm & 6pm | Venue: Drama Centre Theatre | Address: 3/F National Library Building, 100 Victoria Street | Tickets: $50-75 from Sistic