A few years ago I was sent to El Vacie, a notorious chabola (shanty town) in the north of Sevilla, to research a news story. It was about a gitana (gypsy woman) who claimed to be the oldest woman in Spain - she had just celebrated her 116th birthday. Several friends warned me strongly against going there, saying it was a dangerous, lawless place. I went anyway - I was intrigued. Gitanos are socially excluded in Spain, as in the rest of Europe; most of the 700,000 here live by begging and collecting scrap metal (chatarra) to sell. Many of Spain's greatest flamenco artists are gitanos and gitanas. The woman's house in El Vacie - one of the better ones, a prefab - was spotlessly clean, with a high-tech TV and stereo system, although without "official" electricity or water supplies. I also met her daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter; they were all pleasant but guarded with me, a paya (non-gitana) and a journalist. It was a real eye-opener - the shacks, the rows of Mercedes, the shady-looking characters hanging around, the undertone of menace. I'm glad I went, but it felt voyeuristic - there was an endless stream of media visiting the family, as they were demanding permanent housing from the Ayuntamiento very publicly, and it was hot news. Generally, of course, gitanos aren't ideal media fodder, and are rarely portrayed in positive terms - except for a ground-breaking project by a social theatre group called TNT. Two years ago, a group of gitanas from El Vacie started performing Lorca's La Casa de Bernardo Alba. Since the production premiered, it has played to packed houses around Spain, including the Teatro Español in Madrid (plus Barcelona later this month), has won three awards, and is touring Europe and the US next year.
Having followed its widespread media coverage, and being curious because of my brief experience of El Vacie, I went to see the production on Saturday night. After nearly driving into El Vacie itself, we finally found the theatre, a new venue situated just a few hundred metres from the chabola, called the Teatro Atalaya-TNT, hidden in a suburban street behind a large supermarket. It was a sell-out, and we sat right behind the stars' families, with children and fathers paying rapt attention to their women's performances. I'd never seen the play before, although I read a plot summary so I knew roughly what to expect. The set is simple and everyday; the stage itself has plain black walls (Bernarda's house is white in the original), and the house is represented by stadium-style layered seating, littered with bottles of water, torches and old-fashioned metal basins with handles used as baths. It's all designed to be normal, and familiar to the actresses. The women - for the play only features female characters: Bernarda Alba, her five daughters, mad mother and two maids - are dressed in typical gitana clothes - long skirts, with all barefoot except the matriarch. Some have the typical gitana figure - large, while others are slim, and one is pregnant, her swollen belly obvious under a tight top. Bernarda herself (holding her stick aloft in the photo) is an autocratic figure, feared and hated, denouncing towards the audience rather than talking directly to daughters and domestic servants. The other women vary in how comfortable they seem with their lines: Poncia, the main maid, is 100% confident, while some seem less sure. It was rough and ready, but that's the idea - these are not trained actresses, they're marginalised housewives and mothers, many of whose husbands are in prison. The dialogue has been pared down to the bare minimum to preserve the essentials in terms of plot and character, so that the women don't have to memorise too many lines. Music is used to punctuate the action; flamenco and Romani songs, both sung by the women and played over the loudspeakers. Humour is provided by the mad old granny, who is kept locked in the corral (chicken coop), as she keeps trying to run away from her tyrannical daughter - and who can blame her. The action centres around the eldest daughter, who has recently become to betrothed to an (unseen) local man. But the youngest daughter's also in love with him, and let's just say, it doesn't end happily. Bernarda insists her child has died a virgin, and we're shown the blood-soaked panuelo - a test carried out on the bride at gitano weddings - as proof. Lorca, who hailed from Granada, was a well-known champion of the gitano people. So it's fitting that gitanas are performing his work, and a stone's throw from where they live. But it's also chock-full of irony. Bernarda Alba is a rich woman, with her own house and land; most of these women can't read or write, live in shacks, and are among the poorest in Spain. Now they're travelling around the country, and beyond, as stars. It is well worth seeing - as long as you can find the theatre - just take it with a pinch of salt. It's different if you know Lorca's work intimately, if it's part of your culture. But plenty of the jokes were lost on me; I'd need to see it agan to get the full effect, as there are so many different elements to take in over a short space of time (jsut over an hour): the "actresses" themselves and their characters; their clothes; how they talk and carry themselves, how they act and interact; the plot; the singing; the dancing; the jokes. And the fact that most of the audience, if they saw any of these women in the street, would probably do their best to avoid or ignore them. It felt to me like a social experiment (although I don't think that was TNT's original aim when they did the first workshop). I found it an uncomfortable experience, and it left me feeling kind of hypocritical. Why was I here - to see the play, or to see gitanas doing something other than beg, or perform flamenco? I'm not saying don't go and see it, just that it's not as simple as all that. Will it change the general perception of gitanos in Spain? I'm not sure. La Casa de Bernardo Alba is at the Teatro Atalaya-TNT in Seville on Saturday 11 December. Here's a video trailer.