Blood Wedding at Young Vic: a woozy, inky world

Entering the world of Blood Wedding is like stepping inside a Rembrandt painting.

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Yaël Farber uses smell design, something very few theatre directors do. The South African director’s Hamlet starring Ruth Negga, which premiered at the Dublin Theatre Festival last September, was ritualistically perfumed by a swinging thurible like in a church service. Prior to that, Farber’s last production in London, a visceral staging of David Harrower’s Knives in Hens at the Donmar Warehouse, smelt like damp stone and sweaty bodies rolling in a barn. Her latest creation, Federico García Lorca’s Blood Wedding adapted by Marina Carr, likewise has it’s own distinct smell. The olfactory notes of this one are a woozy, high-pitched blend of florals, varnished wood and tobacco. It sits at the back of the mouth, its cocktail sweetly rotting like fermenting apples.

This attention to smell isn’t a pretty addition popped on top of a production. It’s part of Farber’s world-building approach, which does everything possible not to be a boxed-up collection of scenes viewed at a distance through a proscenium arch frame. In a 2017 interview with the Stage, Farber described learning to make theatre in South Africa “out of sand and water” due to budget constraints. With Blood Wedding, she has far more than that to play with: it seems in some ways like the most complex of her works to date, a 3D puzzle of visuals and words.

Thanks to designer Susan Hilferty, entering the world of Blood Wedding is like stepping inside a Rembrandt painting. It takes time just to adjust to the concealing inky darkness. The audience are seated almost in-the-round, the set-up echoing the old surgical theatres where medical students would cram in to watch the dissection taking place in the centre. Sometimes, aspects of the design are too fleeting or disjointed: strings of lights descend, then quickly disappear, and the use of wires to lift actors from the stage results in some beautiful freeze-frame moments, but are distracting when being attached. The most arresting moments are often the simplest, like the sudden flurry of vibrant green leaves that interrupts the charcoal-coloured landscape.

The virtue of Carr’s adaptation is also simplicity. Ostensibly re-set in Ireland, the play retains certain Spanish qualities and references. The result is a location that is neither Ireland nor Spain, but a suspicion-soaked rural locale where being from the mountains rather than the plains is enough to mark someone out as dangerous. The basic plot remains near enough the same: a young woman is on the eve of an arranged marriage when her passionate former partner abandons his wife and child to make an impetuous last minute plea for her affections. Lorca’s original is a combination of the natural and the supernatural, a surrealistic play featuring “The Moon” and “Death” on the cast list. Carr’s version removes a lot of the self-conscious tension between these elements, while also involving the humour and brilliantly bleak turns of phrase that make her earlier plays so much fun.

Anyone familiar with those plays won’t be surprised that it’s the women – in all their bonkers, flawed, angry, bored grandeur – who become the most interesting characters here. As the Bride, Aoife Duffin is in a permanent temper, her face bearing that look teenagers have when they think every adult in the room is an irredeemable idiot. She runs out of her own wedding with the muscular, rugged Leonardo (Gavin Drea), but not before making clear she’s hugely unimpressed with him marrying someone else and leaving her in the first place. And unlike him, she refuses to accept that escape means death. What she really wants is to run far from this insular community with its selling of women like prize cattle for birthing chunky babies.

The showstopper, though, is Olwen Fouréré as the Mother, and not just because her white mane illuminates her in the gloom. She sermonises on everything from correct wifely practice to the deaths of her sons to the thankless trials of being a mother. At times, there’s the faintest hint she’s aware of her own absurdity and enjoys the fire and brimstone of her speeches. At others, she’s a much sadder figure, her own grief transmuted into obsessing over clan rivalries.

Carr and Farber emphasise the factional conflicts underwriting Blood Wedding and the tragedy of Lorca’s own assassination by a Franco-supporting militia. The play closes by echoing the prophetic words of a Lorca poem in which the writer describes being murdered, the body never located. Constant references to named families and the tragic ending also give the Bride and Leonardo’s story more than a hint of Romeo and Juliet.

They’ll likely be two audiences for Blood Wedding, one who appreciates the guttural retelling of a story with many contemporary parallels but dislikes the slippery, weirder parts towards the end. And the other, smaller, group (myself included) who revel in the dream-like sequences of midnight horseriding, a melancholy singing moon, Old Master colour palettes and a Greek-inspired weaver spinning the fates of humankind. Does it matter which team you’re in? Probably not. Like that smell, it’s the mix of earthy and exotic notes that makes this play intoxicating.

This article appears in the 09 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The fantasy of global Britain