Vet­eran Aus­tralian play­wright Pa­tri­cia Cor­nelius takes on Fed­erico Gar­cia Lorca’s tale of wom­an­hood and re­pres­sion, writes Peter Craven

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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

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