BUILDING A NEW
Veteran Australian playwright Patricia Cornelius takes on Federico Garcia Lorca’s tale of womanhood and repression, writes Peter Craven
They may sound like an odd couple but they’re not: Federico Garcia Lorca, that great Spanish poet who also wrote some of the greater poetic dramas since Shakespeare, and Patricia Cornelius, that veteran Australian playwright who has never come into her kingdom in terms of main stages and large audiences but who has one of the highest reputations in the Australian theatre. Lorca, dead at 38, victim of the fascist Falangists at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War; Cornelius, a veteran of the baby boom going strong and with a committed vision of society and its abuses stretching back to the Vietnam War days.
Now the Melbourne Theatre Company is mounting a production of Lorca’s all-female play The House of Bernarda Alba directed by Leticia Caceres, transposed to outback Western Australia with Melita Jurisic (magnificent just last year in Annie Baker’s John) as the matriarch and Julie Forsyth as the housekeeper in an adaptation by Cornelius that has a ripe vernacular tang but preserves the saltiness and savour, the sometimes breathtaking savagery, of Lorca’s black-shrouded nightmare tragedy of womanhood and repression at the gates of death.
They are each, to put it mildly, uncompromising playwrights. The Age’s theatre critic Cameron Woodhead said once of Cornelius’s Shit that it presented the kind of young women you’d move away from on public transport, and Lorca’s vision is full of blood and vengeance in the face of hearts that seem to have broken into a set of stones, so many chunks of ruin in search of annihilation.
What unites them is the vigour of language that furthers the dramatic vision.
Cornelius’s titles — Slut, Shit — are terser, but then there’s Do Not Go Gentle, its title echoing the Dylan Thomas poem about raging against the dying of the light, even as death comes, and its central dramatic idea a wonderful illumination of the worst things in the world: a group of people in an old folks’ home, afflicted with every kind of loss and derangement of faculty and remembrance, imagine they are re- the enacting that foundation myth for a lot of oldtimers, Scott’s fatal expedition to the Antarctic in 1910-13. Remember Lawrence “Titus” Oates tragically (heroically) walking into the snow saying he might be some time. There was even an Australian verse drama about it, originally written for radio, by Douglas Stewart, The Fire on the Snow.
Cornelius has fond memories of it. Just at the moment she is revisiting the Scott story by reading one of the great nonfiction books of the 20th century, the witness account of Apsley CherryGarrard, The Worst Journey in the World. You get the sense from the warmth of her enthusiasm that the whole of theatre and drama and, god help us, life, are one continuum for this woman who won the Patrick White Award, as so many other artists (Gerald Murnane, Amy Witting) have for courage in the face of too little worldly or monetary recognition.
So why is Lorca, this man of blood and diamonds and vendetta and an enshrouding sense of calamity, using the face of Catholic Spain like a walking auto-da-fe?
“Because Leticia Caceres asked me if I was interested in doing it. I read it and thought it was exciting.” But does Cornelius have an affinity for Lorca?
“I feel an affinity for his politics and the way he threads it through his works,” she says. “It was made easier for him by his privileged background but it’s there. And I also feel a great affinity for him because he’s a gay man and that permeates all his works even though he could not express it directly. But I think this feeds into the way he represents women.”
Cornelius is a great believer in the idea that people can speak across genders. “It’s absurd to say a male playwright can’t have an affinity for women and their world. I mean, Ibsen had that affinity, too. And he had a tremendous feeling for repression as well.”
But at the centre of Lorca’s representation of the female world there is his matriarch — Bernadette in Cornelius’s adaptation — his figure of maternal domination who is someone who puts new meaning in the old sexist cliche of the battle-axe. She’s a figure to place with Clytemnestra, she’s one of the most formidable instances of histrionic self-possession in the history of drama (as anyone who looks up the 1991 British production of the play with Glenda Jackson on YouTube will instantly realise).
“Oh, Bernarda herself!” Cornelius almost gasps. “The atrocity is wonderful. It doesn’t relate to anybody or anything recognisable and yet we do recognise it.”
It’s a woman’s world of rock, of steel, of nightmare, of death. A man has died, Cornelius says, but that seems the merest pretext for the assertion of Bernarda’s dominion.
Cornelius talks about how she has to establish her own Bernadette, her fierce maternal dominator, “in a world which is far from upright”.
There are very specific problems involved in the adaptation because Lorca’s world is so much the archetypal country of “Black Spain”, a world of ancient landmarks.
There’s a particular scene in Cornelius’s version where the daughters cavort around in lace underwear and Bernadette tells them to get their clothes on with a sternness that is absolute.
“I had to use lace and to make it into something that was marvellous,” Cornelius says. “And I thought underwear was the one thing I could use because their lace has always been used to entice. And it still is.”
It was a dazzling thing, she says, to realise just how masterful and fluent Lorca was at allowing one scene to transition into another without any overt fuss or expository introduction and she tells me she has done her best to follow him in the audacity of his dramatic design. “He’s just dropping a lot of traditional dramatic apparatus,” she says. “The setting is barely interrupted by the ferocity of the scene changes and he gets a lovely flow from this which we succeed in translating into the production, at least sometimes.
“The effect is almost ritualistic, poem; in fact, it’s like a psalm.”
It’s fascinating to hear a playwright talk with awe about the masterpiece she’s attempting to re-create, investing her own country (and something like its mythological aspect: parched bush Australia) with its vernacular as well as a contemporary perspective that is potentially at odds with this 1930s drama that recapitulates, at a level of symbolism, an age-old past.
“You’re actually rewriting something which is monumental,” Cornelius says. “And the whole thing is double-barrelled with incest and with pure miserable hatred.”
She glows as she talks about the towering plateau of savagery and tormented exaltation that is intrinsic to the play. it’s like a