Chay Yew Talks House of Bernarda Alba and Oppression

The House of Bernarda Alba, written in 1936 by Federico Garcia Lorca, explores jealousies and suppressed desires, as daughters fight against their tyrannical mother and turn on each other for the sake of love. Originally set in Andalusia, the drama will be given a Peranakan twist in the upcoming Wild Rice's production.

Directed by Glen Goei, the cast will be led by Claire Wong as the powerful matriarch and Neo Swee Lin, Karen Tan, Serene Chen, Noorlinah Mohamed, and Glory Ngim as Bernarda's five daughters. Margaret Chan also makes a return to the stage as Bernarda's mother.

New York-based, Singapore playwright and stage director Chay Yew adapted Lorca’s play. We talked to him about the play, his favorite character, and the upcoming production.

You first adapted the play in 2000, what attracted you to it?

“I read Lorca when I was in university and have always loved Lorca's intricate poetry and plays. His writing on In Search of Duende continues to inspire me in my work. He says that great art is dependent on an awareness of death, a bond with our country's earth, and an acknowledgement of the limitations of reason. I had not given Lorca a thought in ages until I was asked to direct a production of Bernarda Alba for the National Asian American Theatre Company in New York for their Lorca season in 2000. When I didn't find a version I was passionate about, I asked the artistic director if I could take a stab at adapting the play and she agreed. For me, it was more of the necessity, at the time, of finding a version I wanted to direct than to take Bernarda straight on.

Glen Goei is setting the play within the Perakanan culture. What do you think of this choice?

“I did not localize the play to Singapore nor to the Peranakan culture. In my version, it was neutral for any location where women, oppression, and Roman Catholicism exist. When I first wrote the play, I did picture my Chinese female relatives in Bernada. Glen Goei actually saw similarities in the Singapore/Peranakan culture in my adaptation, and I credit him for situating the play to Singapore and I credit Lorca for his play's universality.

I hear ‘Peranakan matriarch’ and I think of Emily of Emerald Hill. Interestingly Margaret Chan, who made the role hers, will be in this play, though not in the title role. Were you involved with the casting?

No, I was not involved in the casting of the Singapore production. But I'm extremely glad to see Margaret Chan in the role. I first knew Margaret back when in the mid-1980s we worked on Edith Piaf together at Theatreworks, and this is a remarkable full circle for me. It's an honor to have one of Singapore's stage treasures, Margaret, in the cast.

Which of the characters do you feel the most for?

Poncia (the maid). She is the true mother to the girls, the confidant to her mistress Bernarda, and desperately caught between her roles, her station in life, and her sex.

Do you think the play is still relevant to a 21st Century audience?

Bernarda is about oppression and, in the case of this play in particular, the oppression of women using tradition, religious and gender roles. It is also very fascinating that the antagonist and catalyst, Pepe El Romano, is a man we never see.

One of the lessons in Bernarda is that sometimes the oppressor is usually one of our own kind, and not someone from the outside. In this case, it is Bernarda who oppresses her daughters because she learned the old ways from her mother, and her mother before her, about how a woman is to behave. She forgets that she too was once Adele or even Poncia. In a way, the rigid adherence to these traditional, religious, social, and gender rules and codes which discriminate against women, actually originate with and are created by men. The circle was never broken. The questions the play asks are: When and how will the vicious circle be broken, or are we doomed to always live under fear and oppression? And what are the consequences? It’s usually a too heavy price to pay; in this play, it's death. Is death the final liberty? What is the alternative to inaction? Are those alive really free? From political regimes to gay rights movements, Bernarda will always be a relevant metaphor as long as there is oppression and discrimination.

Your text has been described as being more lyrical than previous adaptations and also more explicit. Was this a conscious decision?

Yes it was a conscious decision on my part to make my version more poetical. I decided to depart from Lorca's original Bernarda, and I was more inspired by Lorca's Blood Wedding and his poems when I approached this adaptation.

W!ld Rice will be staging The House of Bernarda Alba from March 12 to 29 March, at the Drama Centre Theatre.

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