Skip to main content

Blood Wedding


Sydney Theatre Company and Colonial First State Global Asset Management present BLOOD WEDDING by Federico Garcia Lorca, in a new translation by Iain Sinclair at Wharf 1, Sydney Theatre Company.

“In 1929, Lorca left Madrid for New york and after an unhappy year he briefly moved to Cuba, before returning to Spain in 1930. His return coincided with the election of a republican government and a new atmosphere of artistic freedom. This gave Lorca’s talents the freedom to develop as never before and led to his appointment as director of La Barraca, an innovative government-sponsored touring  theatre company. During a hectic and adventurous five years with La Barraca, Lorca established himself as the most popular Spanish playwright of his day. He was able to perform classic Spanish plays to both rural and city audiences whilst developing his own work and unique style, integrating performance, music and dance. It was during this exciting time, Lorca wrote and staged BLOOD WEDDING (BODAS DE SANGRE).”

“Lorca’s BLOOD WEDDING is a classic of twentieth-century theatre. The story is based on a newspaper fragment which told of a family vendetta and a bride who ran away with the son of the enemy family. Lorca uses it to investigate the subjects which fascinated him: desire, repression, ritual, and the constraints and commitments of the rural Spanish community in which the play is rooted.” (1).

The text of BLOOD WEDDING is regarded as a marvellous work of dramatic poetry.

Beginning within a tough rural community, where marriages are conducted on the basis of quality breeding possibilities for the bride, and property expansions, not love, this raw and primitive culture is catapulted, when the passions spill into ill-considered actions, into a containing world of nature, of Woodsmen, of the Moon and of Death. It combines “the prosaic nature of village life and flights of mythological fancy”.

From a kind of white-hard realism with fluorescent light to Daliesque saturated surreal visions of the inanimate as living forces in an autumnal forest, where magic, mischief can cruelly happen, the play unravels. (Set Design by Rufus Didwiszus. Costume Design by Luke Ede. Lighting Design by Damien Cooper).

BLOOD WEDDING (1933) is the first of an imaginative, poetic exploration of the possibility of contemporary poetry making in dramatic literature form by Lorca. YERMA (1934) and THE HOUSE OF BERNADA ALBA (1936) complete the trilogy.

Iain Sinclair, whose second language is Spanish, has taken to this play as a “passion project”. Mr. Sinclair has tackled the fearsome job of translating and adapting this great Spanish work for the Australian audience. The text sounded, miraculously,  neither too Spanish, and, so arcane to our ear, or, too Australian, and, so odd to our ear. Rather, it seemed to allow the performers an entry point of comfortability that did not have cultural strain one way or the other. I am sure that the Spanish audience may think otherwise. And certainly, I enjoyed reading the 1996 version by Ted Hughes, for its more finely wrenched poetry into English, than listening to a more prosaic rendering of the sounds, words and poetry on the Sydney Theatre Company staged by Mr Sinclair. Still it was thankfully clearer and more accessible than the 1941 version by James Graham-Lujan and Richard OÇonnell, published by Secker & Warburg (1959) that I read in preparation for this performance. Even easier then the 2008 version by Jo Clifford for Nick Hern Books.

So, to my less than experienced ears I was relatively content with the music of this ‘poem’. Continuing his passion, Mr. Sinclair has then organized a ‘wrapping’ of production conception, employing, for instance, the Meyerhold experiment of the actors-on-stage watching and supporting from the sides; a live musician – it  has the tension of breathed excitement with the actors rapturously singing the songs in Spanish and English, clapping percussively and leaning keen focus to the action. Mr Sinclair has also constructed a physical language for some of the actors and their actions, a kind of physical stylisation. It has the potential for imaginative impetus to the drive of the piece. Part dance. Part choral.

It is odd then, with all this loving pre-production toiling and conceiving of BLOOD WEDDING, it goes so astray in performance. James Waites has led a blog discussion: Wotever Happened to STC Acting? and after watching this production it is a very pertinent question, especially if you have spent $70 for your ticket.

Leah Purcell is cast by Mr Sinclair in the central role of The Mother. This play will stand or fall around the necessary galvanizing presence of this figure in the machinations, mechanisms of this play plot. It is a dominating energy force. It must shape the play for  the audience. Women in Lorca are the power drivers, much as they are in the contemporary film-poet, Almodavar’s films – all of them.

Ms Purcell has been given demonstrative physical stylisations to accompany her text and actions in the play. Vocally, there is apparent coaching in the speech meaning clarity. But all of this work comes to nothing for Ms Purcell does not have  the skills, at present , to incorporate the directional requirements that Mr Sinclair has invented for her,  and what I saw was an actress straining for some authenticity within the construct of the performance style. There was much ambition and striving, effort, but essentially, it had absolutely no authenticity. It looked like a puppet semaphoring physical gesture automated on command from a string-master, and was accompanied by a lack of true emotional attachment to the language with no relaxed comprehension of the beauty of the language-verse structure or how to attach it  to an appropriate emotional scale that was truthful, that could bring the play to luminous life. The emotional life required for the playing of The Mother is unknown, it seems, to this actor, that it is guessed at, and subsequently empty, and mostly forced – the exception is in the last scene with the Bride. And why? Because here, I detect, was a chance for Ms Purcell to play in a more naturalistic and familiar manner, and the apparent comfort this gave her is evident, for the contrast of identification is in significant contrast to the rest of the work. The latter section of the play was played within her known range as an  actress.

Ms Purcell has had created around her a quite wonderful persona as a theatre maker and even has won a Helpmann for Best Actress for THE STORY OF MIRACLES AT COOKIE’S TABLE but this work is not within her secure range. What was it about this actress did Mr Sinclair see, to cast this role as Ms Purcell’s responsibility? The risk taken, is not rewarded. The production is mortally wounded from the start. There is no possibility for the magic of Lorca’s poetry  or Mr Sinclair’s adaptation to come to reasonable life.

The first scene is acted out between the Mother and The Bridegroom. Mr Sinclair has invited an old colleague from his days in Canberra, and their theatre company, Elbow Theatre, Kenneth Spiteri. Just what the qualities Mr Spiteri has to be cast in this role is not possible to discern, either. His performance lacks lustre and charisma. On the day I saw it, I was puzzled indeed. Mr Sinclair has not been able to elicit those qualities to make the character or play work with Mr Spiteri. Neither Mr Spiteri or Ms Purcell have the powers to attract my empathy or even to help me understand the relationship between them. Neither of them appeared to be ‘real’ or connected. Both unable to inspire the other.

Thank Thespis then, when Lynette Curran arrived as The Neighbour, for here was an actor with a character that was  at ease and in the world of necessary belief, as a performer, for some of us to have an inkling of what was going on and what was at stake. Ms Curran may have made an interesting Mother?

The usual reliable Toni Scanlan playing The Mother In Law in the second scene, holding a baby in her arms and singing a lullaby, is forced to compete with an over excited accompaniment from The Wife played by Zindzi Okenyo. There is no doubting the passion and power of Ms Okenyo’s identification with this culture for the raucousness of the noise she makes is not at all modulated for the sake of audience clarity (Composer/Guitarist, Andrew Veivers – terrific work). Such is the pitch and volume of the two women as they compete for clarity of their individual story, that when the usually impressive Yalin Ozucelik as Leonardo appears, he is forced to begin his vocal tasks at such a noise level that he too becomes adrift as a safe vessel for the audience to identify with and board. No matter the sexual attraction achieved in the physical delineation of this characterisation by Mr Ozucelik, shouting is not comfortable for an audience to witness.Five of the six actors, so far, have wrecked the journey of the play and demolished the poetry. Mr Sinclair, apparently not ale to assist.

However, worse is to come when we meet the Bride as played by Sophie Ross. Warnings of possible emotional strain and stretch are given in her first scene but subsequently the emotional entry and the physical and vocal tensions, the lack of emotional restraint and the pressure on the technique of this actor’s instrument becomes so completely occupying, distressingly so, that one worries, sincerely, for the literal damage that the artist seems to be inflicting upon herself, to even begin to want to find a character in the world of the play. Stressful noise and no poetry of Lorca is delivered to the audience. Unrestrained emotional indulgence ruins the text, the story and worryingly the actor’s instrument – not just the voice which sounded to be in flayed and frayed tatters- within this text  talk of shards of glass on the tongue are mentioned many times, and I could not help but imagine that Ms Ross’ vocal chords may be bloody from worse than shards of glass – but plain physical tensions and misuse are visible as well.

In the program notes much is made of the idea of DUENDE. A small interlude from Garcia Lorca, himself, from LORCA’S THEORY AND PLAY OF THE DUENDE (1933), and, as well, trendily from Nick Cave and his LOVE SONG LECTURE, 1999.

From Lorca: “Duende is a force not a labour, a struggle not a thought. I heard an old maestro of the guitar say, “The duende is not in the throat: the duende surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet.”  FROM THE SOLES OF THE FEET. None of these actors surged from the soles of their feet, none were ever earthed in their emotional expression, rather it seemed to emanate from their chests and from their throats. Lorca had little chance in this company’s use of duende to reveal the life of his poetic world. The connection to the soil of Spain and its culture was not  ever in the soles of the feet but where he warned it was NOT, in their throats. The strain was unbearable to watch and hear. Mr Sinclair was not able to assist?

Where was the director in his duty of care to the actors he had cast in the play he has so lovingly prepared? Lorca loses out. Lorca lost out. We lost out. When will we see another play by Lorca on a professional stage? Probably not soon. Where is his care to this company of actors he has selected? Or does Mr Sinclair not have the skills to assist and advise the actors?

Where was Charmian Gladwell, the Voice and Text Coach? What advice guidance had she given these actors, in preparation in rehearsal and during the run of performances? (The photograph in the program  of Ms Gladwell does not inspire much confidence to the seriousness of her attentions. “Take off that hat and throw away the trumpet and get down to serious instruction”, I say).

After the interval we come to the amazing poetic turn of the play by Lorca. Reality has slipped its moorings and the playwright is released into the dramatic and poetic realm of his imagination in the third act (Picasso and Dali were fellow artists). The designers have a created a world of true enchantment.

But then in true art-directed image-theatre tradition, Mr Sinclair has cast a schoolgirl, Holly Fraser, (with little theatre training, her resume, reveals mostly Film,Television and Modelling experience), as THE MOON. THE MOON, in whatever translation one would care to read, has the greatest burden and joy of exquisite poetry to give  an audience. What Mr Sinclair has encouraged and created here is an image of a blood vomiting child with a crown on her head, in a drenched and bloody tutu, swinging through the air, piping shrilly sounds, (surely, not words) of which she has no discernible comprehension and perhaps, more than likely, no ability to communicate. Of what qualities, other than visual, did this young actor present to Mr Sinclair?  Ms Fraser is sadly not alone in this miscasting by Mr Sinclair.

This play is famous for the poetry. What then do you believe the first quality that you, if you were to direct this play, you would be looking for to ensure to honour  the playwright? I, humbly, suggest intelligent-experienced voices. There are none in this company of actors (well one, perhaps, in the proven intelligence of Ms Curran’s work). However, the disjointed one-word-at-a-time recitation of the poetic text of The Beggar Woman defies understanding of the Directorial vision, and that is both in form and comprehension. It was unintelligible.

“Wotever Happened to STC Acting?” asks Mr Waites. I concur, “What’s happened?”. Just where is the Casting Directors, Serena Hill or her assistant, Lauren Wiley and their sage advice? The audience is paying trustfully to all your talents – I mean all the Company’s talents. Yours as well. The production looks great, as usual, but it sounds incomprehensible and the acting usage is woeful. Who is not pulling their weight for such catastrophe to happen? It is not the choice of play or the experimental plunges that is collectively making this season at the STC a disaster, but rather the directing and resultant acting on the stage.

Downstairs at the Wharf, at atyp, a co-op company Mess Hall is presenting SWEET BIRD ANDSOFORTH and I was diappointed with the lack of care by the actors and the director, Laura Scrivano, for the careless and disastrous performance skill work. But this is the THE FLAGSHIP icon of the Australian theatre – The Sydney Theatre Company.

UNCLE VANYA, has just garnished great reviews for their work in Washington. But a company must be judged by all of its work. And this production judged on simple verbal dexterity, voice skills, represents the lowest ebb we have had to endure as a paying audience so far. A production is only as good as its weakest link. Send this work to Washington and what might be the regard for the Sydney Theatre Company then?

It is probably impossible now, but I thoroughly  recommend that you beg or borrow a ticket to see THE LIBERTINE – a co-op production at the Darlinghurst Theatre, directed by Damian Ryan and Terry Karabelas, to see what I regard as good work and grateful to have spent my money and time at, and then understand why I am so upset with BLOOD WEDDING at the Sydney Theatre Company, Wharf 1 Theatre.

Do the actors know how to practice their craft? Are they not empowered enough to lead the director to better outcomes? Do the director’s have the experience, skills, knowledge to cast well and/or help solve acting problems? Just what is wrong? Intellectual conceptualizers and or emotional enthusiasts at the helm on a production is simply not enough. This is a craft. It needs practice. Practicing at this level of expectation – in the supposed leading company in Australia (arguably) does not need inexperienced academics or theorists or enthusiasts. It needs comprehensive, earned skill and experience.

Where are the experienced director’s of our city? Our nation? Not at work for some odd reason or other. What could those reasons be? Not cool enough? Too demanding? Too intimidating? Too knowledgeable? Too good? Too old? Too resistant to new form? What is the explanation?

Before the beginning of the performance, the company in street dress, came out to us and offered a candied almond. It was not a sufficient bribe, alas. BLOOD WEDDING was unpalatable, despite the candy.

4 replies to “Blood Wedding”

  1. "Not cool enough? Too demanding? Too intimidating? Too good? Too old?".

    Perfectly poised questions, Mr J.!

    At least we can await Mr Cottrell's production of Loot.

    Meanwhile a number of highly skilled and experienced directors are working in small unfunded drama and film schools, teaching overseas or working for Opera Australia or choreographing TV soap operas.

    And no, I do not put myself in that class. (Although I have been told that my recent production of Martin Crimp's Attempts On Her Life for the Sydney Theatre School – which ironically played at the old NIDA Theatre – was pretty good).

    I'm referring to Jim Sharman, Aubrey Mellor, Aarne Neeme, Gale Edwards, George Whaley, John O'Hare et al.

    I would have loved to have seen what any of the above would have done with Blood Wedding – or, indeed, many texts staged by the STC in the last few years.

    Streetcar or Long Day's Journey as realized by Mr Mellor; a True West – or even a Zebra or Riflemind – from Mssrs Sharman, Neeme or Ms Edwards. The imagination boggles with possibilities!.

    Unfortunately, the "bright and shiny" or "old, foreign, awarded but not necessarily appropriate" seem to now dominate our state's flagship Theatre Company.

    It's no wonder that things are so often "unpalatable".

    All the best,

    Rowan G.

  2. Kevin, I was a wally who paid $70 for this and turned up just before 8pm – unfortunately as it was a Tuesday and the "real" performance had started at 6.30pm I was in perfect time for the second half!

    Yes as you say: "The production looks great, as usual, but it sounds incomprehensible and the acting usage is woeful." It was a bit of a stretch to come in at that point and really attempt to get much out of this at all obviously (like coming in half way thru a Shakespeare and spending 20mins getting up to speed with the diction and metre). It seemed that a number of people had given up at half time and escaped to easier pursuits like maybe CSI on the telly – Lorca is rather difficult. I struggled, as I think you did, with the Bernard Alba at Carriageworks in the perspex cube (maybe where Belvoir has got their temporary obsession from). Maybe STC are indeed spending most of their money on the "bright and shiny" production? Obviously my views are subject to a 66% discount due to how much I saw of this! only

  3. Why don't people take a look at amateur theatre for a change? Yes, most of it is probably mediocre but there are a number of actors out there (including myself) who have not come through schools but who have simply grown and developed under the best tutor available – paying audiences! It is the 'graduates', most of whom make a living mainly through TV and film, who are the true 'amateurs' when it comes to theatre. Many of them are ignorant of the art of commmunicating to 100 people or more in a space. I'll go '15 rounds' with a professional actor on the baords any day!

  4. Yes, we all know there is some marketing mileage in a "flavour of the minute" name director, but what about the directors who actually know what they are doing? It was my privilege to work recently with Aarne Neeme on a production of John Doyle's play The Pig Iron People in Canberra. Working with a cast of fine, mostly older, mostly amateur performers, Aarne's shoestring production (as commented by John himself) got things the STC production missed. I say "Shame, state theatre companies, shame!"

Comments are closed.