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Marion Potts' Blood Wedding manages a fine marriage of Spanish and English, but lacks blood

Although one of the most translucent and direct stylists among writers of the early 20th century, Federico García Lorca so completely wrapped his plays in a specifically Spanish sensibility, binding them to the earth – "all thistles and terminal stones" – of his native Andalucía, that it can be difficult for audiences to take non-Spanish performances entirely seriously. Lorca derived his distinctive histrionics from a close study of Spanish folk traditions, especially the grave ardour of the flamenco tradition, and his expressions of doom and insistence on the absolute tyranny of death can seem unprofound or flimsy if tainted, for example, by the Anglo-Australian suspicion of all things uninhibited.

For her Malthouse production of Blood Wedding, director Marion Potts' nueva solución to this problem is to stage a bilingual version of the play, where a large proportion of the lines are spoken in the original Spanish, without translation. This works well, and not only for those already familiar with the play. Even audience members who didn't know the text report no difficulty in following the drama, which is in any case uncomplicated and practically spelled out in the title.

This bilingual ambition is helped immeasurably by the presence in the cast of Mariola Fuentes, a veteran of Spanish cinema, having worked with directors such as Pedro Almodovar and Miguel Albaladejo, who gives a powerful performance as the Mother. Her dark mutterings in English and her rapid, raw flights into Spanish are a controlling influence on the emotional tone of the play. Her heightened anxiety in the opening scene, her fear that violence will once again consume her family, is delivered with an intensity and a conviction that seem more like the cause of the bloodshed than a prediction of it. Fuentes' confidence transforms the Mother into an agent, not a victim, of fate, as though she is the self-aware vessel that carries the bad blood from the past to the future. This is particularly evident in her speech at the end of act two, where she calls once more for blood to be spilled. This is the longest untranslated speech in the production and for non-Spanish speakers, and perhaps even for Spanish speakers, this gives it an incantatory feel, like a witch's curse. The fact that the sense of her exclamation is partly lost to us doesn't matter because, in effect, act three is the sense of it.

But although casting native Spanish speakers like Fuentes, Irene del Pilar Gomez and Ruth Sancho Huerga, who gives a fiery performance as the sharp-tongued Servant, does solve the awkward problem of how to access the deeper emotions of the play, it also opens a gap in the cast between those who can and those who can't. Not between those who can or can't speak Spanish, as everybody appears to be more or less bilingual; but between those who can carry the cultural significance of the Spanish, its peculiar gravitas, and those who still hold themselves like Anglophones. In this, Silvia Colloca as the bride is particularly unconvincing; her vacillation between the Bridegroom and Leonardo has more in it of an upper-middle class fantasist than a misery-wracked cog in an elemental machine of life-love-and-death.

Lorca's difficult final act, which opens with a personification of the bloodthirsty Moon debating with a Beggar Woman, is surprisingly successful, with Raimondo Cortese's shining adaptation of the text highlighted to great effect. Ivan Donato as the Moon wears his craving for death lightly, while del Pilar Gomez as the Beggar, though dressed in a queerly anachronistic parachute tracksuit – strange because the rest of the production seems to strive for timelessness – is haunting.

The action takes place on a kind of large, square ruedo, the field of a bullring, enclosed by the audience on two sides with a tall screen made of decorative hollow bricks blocking a third. On the fourth side is a long row of fridges and ice boxes all packed full of bottled water. It's a set, designed by the Sisters Hayes, that highlights many of the play's key themes in an appropriately bold way, the boldness accentuated by Paul Jackson's lighting, but in the details it can be distracting. Anyone who saw the Rabble's take on The House of Bernarda Alba at fortyfivedownstairs in 2010 will know the kind of eerie significance that hair can be invested with in Lorca's symbolist universe. As in Victorian England, hair was and probably still is a favourite mourning memento in rural Spain. Here, however, the matted and platted hair which reappears in the set and as a prop is strangely disconnected from the imagery in the text, and little effort has been made to point its relevance. So it kind of looks like a whole bunch of wigs have been swept up by a strong breeze and caught in the screen. And why so much hair yet so little blood? Why be so brave as to give us the bullring, which is a pretty gratuitous statement, but then deny us even the colour red, let alone blood itself?

But then that is typical of Potts. She is drawn to plays with a strong erotic subtext – Othello, Venus and Adonis, 'Tis Pity She's a Whore – and yet seems to favour anerotic interpretations. While the other passions are relatively well evoked, the closest this production gets to suggesting real desire is when the Mother explains to her son, the Bridegroom, a needlessly milquetoastish David Valencia, how a real man should treat his wife.

Perhaps there is this anerotic tendency because Potts is suspicious of interpretation itself. Is it possible to see in the language she uses to express her suspicions about the efficacy of translation a resistance to interpretation more generally? One feels like, as with Susan Sontag, she expects the erotic simply to flaunt forth from the text once the stifling trouble of reading it has been abandoned. Thus she frames her projects through "meta-interpretations", interpretations that don't seek to read the text so much as establish context, as with the ideas around bilingualism deployed here. A consequence of this is that there often seems an empty centre to her work: either the unfulfilled expectation of desire or the mistaken belief that this absence is itself desire, like the bullring without the bull.

Ultimately, it is this vague feeling of absence that undermines what is an otherwise successful production.

Marion Potts on Blood Wedding

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By Andrew Furhmann   |   Photos by Garth Oriander

Blood Wedding details

Merlyn Theatre
113 Sturt St, Southbank 3006

Telephone 03 9685 5111

Price $26.00 to $58.00

Date 21 Jul 2012-19 Aug 2012

Open 7.30pm

Director: Marion Potts

Cast: Silvia Colloca, Nicole Da Silva, Ivan Donato, Mariola Fuentes, Ruth Sancho Huerga, Matias Stevens

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