HOMESTEAD by Steven Dykes
based on Lorca's La Casa de Bernada Alba
Shady Dolls’ second production, Homestead by Steven Dykes, premiered at The Courtyard at Covent Garden in September 2006. Set in the American South of the turbulent 1950s, Homestead is a thrilling new version of Lorca's masterpiece of desire and betrayal: La Casa de Bernada Alba. You can read the background to this play in Steven Dykes' fascinating Author's Note below.
The production was hailed a “triumph” by the press, receiving enormous critical acclaim and playing to full houses. Shady Dolls’ fascination with the grotesque proved it could capture a diverse West End audience.
Following the death of their father and governed by their mother's Primitive Baptist faith, the five Beckman daughters face a lengthy confinement within the walls of their remote Texan homestead. The youngest daughter's passionate defiance of religious convention, however, soon unleashes the pent up jealousy and sexual frustration of the all female household.
Set in the American South of the turbulent 1950s, Shady Dolls' latest offering is a thrilling new version of Lorca's masterpiece of desire and betrayal. In keeping with the lush design and avocative soundtrack of the company's wildly exhuberant Erotica Project, Homestead captures a world on the brink of change. A fatal collision of frontier values and post-war dreams. Communal hymns and boys with cars. Church elders and Elvis Presley.
DIONNE ATWILL 'AMY LYNN BECKMAN'
MARINA BURTON 'MARY BETH BECKMAN'
LAURA CHURCHILL 'MARA LEE BECKMAN'
HOLLIE GARRETT 'LILLIAN BECKMAN'
POLLY HENSON 'ADELE BECKMAN'
URSULA MOHAN 'BIRDIE MCLEAN'
REBECCA POLLOCK 'AGNES BECKMAN'
LAURA RUGG 'CLARICE BLEDSOE'
STEVEN DYKES PLAYWRIGHT & DIRECTOR
ANDREW FRIESNER MUSICAL DIRECTOR
SAKINA KARIMJEE SET DESIGNER
EMMA CHILD COSTUME DESIGNER
KARL LAWTON LIGHTING DESIGNER
CHARLIE HUGHES – D’AETH DIALECT COACH
MARCELLE DAVIES MOVEMENT COACH
RACHEL CANDLER PRODUCTION MANAGER
ANDY HICKS STAGE MANAGER
JESS WELLER DEPUTY STAGE MANAGER
HENA CHOWDHURY ASSISTANT STAGE MANAGER
CLAIRE SMITH ASSISTANT STAGE MANAGER
Emma Child, Sakina Karimjee, NIC WATTS & ZOE ROSS SCENIC CONSTRUCTION/Painting
IAN HAISLEY PUBLICITY AND WEBSITE DESIGN
REVIEWS of Homestead the Courtyard at Covent Garden, Sep - Oct 2006
BRITISH THEATRE GUIDE by Louise Hill
Has the National re-located to Covent Garden? Homestead, Steven Dykes' retelling of The House of Bernarda Alba is the kind of grand, cathartic epic more usually seen gracing the stage of the Olivier or the Lyttleton than that of a fringe theatre about to close for lack of funding. I hope one of Nicholas Hytner's team does make the trip down to the Theatre Museum at some point before 15th October, because Dykes' own production of Homestead is ripe for a no-expenses-spared reincarnation in one of the loftier spaces on the South Bank.
Which is not to say that there is anything much missing from the production in its current incarnation. Dykes' all-female cast, led by Hollie Garrett's stoical matriarch Lillian Beckman, lead the audience on an epic journey which traces the lives of a mother and her five young daughters living in the Deep South following the death of their ranch-owner husband and father. Lillian Beckman has no son to take her husband's place, although Ray Beckman did, unknown to his grieving family, father an illegitimate son by the family maid, Clarice. A major theme of the play is that of women surrounded by the demands and temptations of good-for-nothing males, from their dead husband/father, to the undisclosed heir to the ranch and the local traders who see a lone female ranch-owner and smell vulnerability. Ultimately, tragedy will come in the handsome form of Agnes’s fiancé, who proposes for money and then falls prey to the more obvious charms of her sister, Adele, while also managing to break the heart of Lillian's third child, Mara Lee.
The truthful line of Dykes' direction and the cast's strong ensemble work, mirroring the dynamic of a family pulling together in grief and fear, are particularly impressive. Cast and director have taken great care with not only the individual characterisation of each role, but with the highly credible way in which each character has carved out her niche in the family. The staging and sound design are strikingly naturalistic and effective, although to be brutally honest, some of the ensemble a capella pieces, while easy on the ear, could have gained effect by losing a few verses. That, perhaps, is the play's only fault - while its two and a half hours including interval echo the epic vastness of the land and the long history of its inhabitants, and the final scene is nonetheless worth the wait, it could comfortably lose half an hour in singing and marginally unnecessary scenes used to show the inter-relationship of each and every character. Strip those away, however, and this could be a truly great play.
Homestead is that rare thing, a play based on another play which has a new, fresh, legitimate voice of its own. Shady Dolls' impressive production raises a significant question for London theatre and those responsible for its funding and development - why is a theatre producing such high quality new writing about to close, while the West End continues to churn out luke warm tourist-pleasers which add so little to the cultural life of the nation?
THE STAGE BY DAVID SIMMONS
Steven Dykes’ interpretation of Lorca’s La Casa de Bernada Alba is a triumph. The writer does not miss a beat in transposing the action from thirties rural Spain to the ‘pan-handle plains of 1950s Texas’. The play’s themes of conservatism and oppression cry out for such a pressure cooker of simmering tensions and they are given plenty of oxygen here.
The ritual of Roman Catholicism becomes the doctrine of the Primitive Baptist Church as the all-female household mourns the loss of its patriarch behind closed doors. All in black, the cane-wielding widow Lillian Beckman (Hollie Garrett) rules the roost with a cold Puritanism, preaching the old order of things.
Garrett stamps her mark on this play, bringing an oppressiveness every time she appears, snuffing out any moments of abandon enjoyed by her daughters. She is totally believable and shares this quality with rest of the cast. It must be said that all are superb and individually deliver the careful degrees of shading necessary to make this ensemble piece shine.
Shady Dolls graduated from the American Theatre Arts course at Rose Bruford and Dykes wrote this specifically for them. The course lays down principles in its performances of in some way reflecting or interpreting an American social and/or political context. It is perhaps this common manifesto that lends the whole enterprise an added air of authority and conviction.
But it would be certain to fall flat without the quality of writing and execution on display here. The fidelity to idioms of Texan speech is impressive and the singing too hits the mark. I can’t really find anything to fault, except perhaps the length of the run - too short. This play deserves to be seen. I predict great things to come from this lot.
EVENING STANDARD BY KIERON QUIRKE
Here's a diamond in the rough. In the soulless, subterranean studio of the Theatre Museum Steven Dykes's muscular, atmospheric reworking of Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba beautifully rebottles the original's drama of unnatural confinement for an evening that rivals the starrier houses roundabout.
Dykes relocates Lorca in the American Deep South. Lilian Beckman is the new stick-wielding matriarch who keeps her five daughters locked away, here out of perverted Protestant principle rather than Iberian superstition. Hollie Garrett plays her with fearsome steel.
Under her sway, the five young actresses playing the daughters combine in an ensemble performance quietly buzzing with the friction of female rivalry. As Agnes preens herself for her wedding to the never-seen beautiful boy Hernandez, Polly Henson's Adele moons with the knowing grace of a girl whose thoughts are of night-time.
The others circle fascinated, intuiting the disastrous truth even as they hope to avoid it.
The production simmers better than it boils. The actresses' naiveté and some hackneyed direction rear their heads when the emotion is really let rip. The Southern accent, too, is not dealt with uniformly well.
Some notable imperfections then, but only these prevent Homestead from being a fully polished Fringe gem.
SOCIALIST WORKER BY MATTHEW COOKSON
Steven Dykes’s powerful new play is inspired by Federico Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba. Homestead is set in the Baptist US Deep South in the 1950s, rather than the Catholic Spain of Lorca’s final masterpiece.
After the death of her husband, Lillian Beckman is intent on controlling her five daughters’ future and her land. But the daughters yearn for personal and sexual freedom, especially the youngest, Adele. The arrival of an Elvis Presley song on the radio, which momentarily releases their energy, and a handsome suitor for the eldest daughter Agnes, heralds tragedy.
A brilliant all-female cast put in wonderful performances - and the dramatic, atmospheric set fits the story perfectly.
LONDON STUDENT PAPER
Steven Dykes' adaptation of Federico García Lorca's masterpiece, 'La Casa de Bernarda Alba' is the story of a strict Baptist mother and her five daughters living in a remote Texan homestead in the 1950's, over the summer which follows the death of the father. The sexual desires of the five girls are repressed by their mother, who attempts to keep them isolated from the world around them. They have only the two maids for company, and as they pass the stifling summer with no release for their frustrated desires, the jealousy between them gradually builds.
As an adaptation of Lorca's play, the American South is a fascinating setting, and the Shady Dolls do a very convincing job of bringing it to life. It's an all-female company, but there's no sense of 'chick-theatre', the production has universal appeal. Somehow the absence of any male character in the play makes for a very intense feeling of sexual energy, emphasised by the constant references to the fiancé of the eldest daughter, the mysterious Antonio Hernandez. There's also some welcome comic relief, like the discovery of rock 'n' roll by the sheltered girls. Although it sometimes strayed into the realms of melodrama, the women's performances sustained a powerful tension in the air, and created an intimacy with the characters, so that their stories stay in the mind long after it's over.
AUTHOR'S NOTE by Steven Dykes
LORCA IN TEXAS – WHY?
Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba has fascinated me since I first saw Nuria Espert’s thrilling production at the Lyric Hammersmith almost twenty years ago. Certainly as a perfectly formed ensemble piece Lorca’s tragedy would seem to have few rivals, and it’s not hard to see why this ‘drama of women’ (to use Lorca’s own sub-title for the play) is regularly revived professionally – I recently had the good fortune to see Michael John LaChiusa’s musical version at the Lincoln Centre, New York. Bernarda Alba is also frequently performed in theatre schools and university drama departments; the context in which Homestead was conceived.
The unique American Theatre Arts programme at Rose Bruford College, from which the members of the Shady Dolls theatre company graduated, aims in its public productions to stage material that “in some way reflects or interprets an American social and/or political context”. While adhering to this policy, I managed to engineer an opportunity to re-visit Lorca’s play – albeit from a rather different perspective. Hence, the transposition of Lorca’s story from the rural villages of 1930s Spain to the pan-handle plains of 1950s Texas. I would suggest that the two communities depicted in Bernarda Alba and Homestead share enough characteristics to make such adaptation an intriguing proposition.
First, there is the central theme of religion: Lorca’s story begins with a funeral and a ritual period of enforced mourning in which the dead patriarch’s daughters must forswear any ‘inappropriate’ contact with the outside world, principally men. Homestead dutifully follows Lorca’s plot throughout, yet it is not Roman Catholicism that dictates the girls’ confinement, but rather the doctrine of the Primitive Baptist Church, which still thrives in pockets throughout the southern United States.
Central to the theology of Primitive Baptists is an undiluted Calvinist belief in the Pre-destination of the Elected: before God created the world, He had already decided who would be chosen to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and so all those individuals who number among the Elect will be at some point in their natural lives quickened by the Spirit of God, feel His Irresistible Grace. Intriguingly, this means that since every human action or choice is part of His plan, God, and not the Devil, is the author of sin; if people choose to sin, they do so according to God’s purpose and not in opposition to it.
It seemed to me that the depiction of an American household steeped in this faith might make a dramatically telling comparison with Lorca’s. A young woman assured from birth that her destiny is already mapped out and that God will surely one day ‘quicken her spirit’ would either find great comfort in such dogma or perhaps reject it with considerable force. I felt it would be interesting to present such a scenario to the students of the American Theatre Arts programme, who had just spent nine months living in a small town in Texas as part of a year of study abroad.
“Horse and a whip for a man. Needle and thread for a woman.”
Bernarda Alba breeds horses; Homestead’s Lillian Beckman is a cattle-rancher. Both women have earned a small fortune and a local reputation for sheer bloody-mindedness based on their cultivation of land that requires a great deal of labour and resources to keep it (in Lillian’s phrase) “half-way civilised.” Lorca’s language, rich with vivid references to animals, insects and the merciless weather, is the language of people who wage a constant battle with their environment; rural Texans share this respect for (and awe of) the land and a similarly colourful vocabulary. And in these communities, it is rare for women to challenge the dominant culture of the vaquero or cowboy.
CIVIL WAR, CIVIL RIGHTS
The House of Bernarda Alba was the last play Lorca completed before his murder at the hands of pro-Franco thugs in 1936. While the lives of the women in the play appear not to have changed for a hundred years, the country itself is on the verge of civil war. The illicit passion and murderous jealousy which provoke the domestic crisis in the Alba family clearly reflect Lorca’s comprehension of what was at stake as political violence escalated in Madrid and beyond. In Homestead, despite Lillian Beckman’s attempts to hold back the tide, Texas, the South, indeed America itself is also beginning to experience a time of violent social upheaval: the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s. There is a sense that her daughters’ rebellion is somehow in tune with larger forces that will fundamentally challenge the conservative nature of Lillian’s ‘pioneer’ tradition - even if the expression of this rebellion is at first no more subversive than her daughters’ covert dancing to Elvis Presley.
Lorca’s play is scored throughout with the ‘folk’ music of the village: from the church bells of the opening to the profane offstage chorus of the reapers. With Homestead, we have tried to provide an equally intense soundtrack to the characters’ lives: in particular, the fine a capella choral tradition of the Primitive Baptist Church, in which musical instruments are prohibited in accordance with a strict interpretation of the King James’ Bible. The hymns, spirituals and sermons you’ll hear in our production are from Alan Lomax’s extraordinary ‘field’ recordings of congregations in Appalachia, Arkansas and Texas in the late fifties. The folk and country music that emanates from the daughters’ much loved radio is that which featured on the KDAV Station in Lubbock at the time - the first of its kind in the States and still going strong!
Texas history is also the history of the Hispanic population that has lived in the territory since its first exploration by Spanish invaders 400 years ago; and the music, fashion and food of Texas are all heavily influenced by culture brought from South of the Rio Grande. This enabled us to retain the exotic allure of Lorca’s central (but unseen) character: the dashing Pepe el Romano - or Antonio Hernandez as we have renamed him.
INDIVIDUAL VERSUS COMMUNITY
Finally, I feel the closest link between Lorca’s original and an American transposition is in the shared recognition of the power of desire. The daughters’ sense of themselves is defined essentially in terms of their sexuality and their self-esteem in terms of their freedom to express the desire they feel. This definition of desire as a force of opposition, a passionate, anti-intellectual defiance of oppression, even death, lies at the heart of American drama, in particular in the work of Tennessee Williams. Indeed Gwynne Edwards’ analysis of Lorca’s work in the introduction to her translation of Bernarda Alba (1998) could be applied equally to Williams, Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman or Eugene O’Neill:
“Lorca’s concept of tragedy has at its core the notion of aspiration ... characterised by its intensity and single-mindedness. Because different characters have different aspirations, it follows that desires and passions are frequently incompatible with and intolerant of the wishes of others, mutually exclusive, and that, because these passions are also deep-rooted and ineradicable, the characters themselves are inevitably set on a collision course whose outcome will be catastrophic.
Lorca’s characters may express themselves in a manner which strikes us as distinctly un-English, but perhaps in ways that are not entirely un-American. As Tony Kushner in his after word to Angels in America Part II: Perestroika (1993) puts it:
“Given the bloody opulence of [America’s] great and terrible history, given its newness and its grand improbability, its artists are bound to be tempted towards large gestures and big embraces ... [to] strike inflated, even hysterical, chords on occasion. It’s the sound of the Individual ballooning, overreaching. We are all children of ‘Song of Myself’.”
Or in the words of Adele, the youngest daughter, in Homestead:
“You know how the Elders tell it in our prayers and such in church? How God comes to the Chosen like a stirring in your soul. And His Grace is irresistible, cos He picked you out before the world began … How if you are His Chosen, you’re Elected and the Quickening’ll come, whether what you think you want is Saving Grace or not. And His spirit’s overpowering and your body’s filled with light … Well, I know I’m not the Chosen now, I don’t feel that way about God. But still I know that feeling and it’s just as overwhelming and it’s calling me tonight!”
© Steven Dykes August 2006