Sunday, April 20, 2014

Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris - Review

 

Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris.  Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, directed by Tanya Goldberg, March 19 – April 19, 2014.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 19

An excellent production of an excellent play.  The website says it all:

ENSEMBLE THEATRE SEASON SOLD OUT
SEASON EXTENDED - EXTRA SHOWS NOW ON SALE!
WEDNESDAY 23 APRIL & THURSDAY 24 APRIL 8PM
THE CONCOURSE, CHATSWOOD
http://ensemble.com.au/whats-on/play/clybourne-park/

Is the popularity justified by quality?  I think it is.

The Ensemble has a long tradition, going back to its American founder, Hayes Gordon, of presenting successful up-to-date plays from the USA.  Clybourne Park fits the bill since its first production in 2010, having already won a Tony, a Pultizer, Olivier and Evening Standard awards. 

The basis of its success is the witty, often excruciatingly funny, exposé of the worst kind of NIMBYism which has property values and race in the mix.

Norris has skilfully put together, all in the same house, the story of social change in this fictional suburb of Chicago which has been true of central city areas across the US through the post-World War 2 to the present time.

Each of the seven actors has two roles – one in the mid-1950s, following the end of the Korean War in 1953, as ‘coloured’ people began to buy into middle-class white areas; the other in the late 20 noughties, by which time the house had a historical heritage value as the vanguard of the change to Afro-American middle-class ownership.

But there is also the ghostly presence in that house of the son of the earlier white owners, who had hanged himself in his upstairs bedroom because of guilt, apparently for having shot civilians during a clearing operation in Korea.

None of this sounds like material for a comedy.  Just imagine shifting the scene from Chicago to the more upmarket part of Moree, say, if the people from Toomelah had had the chance to buy in 1968, when they were still refused access to the swimming pool, and while the part played by Aboriginal men in Australia’s wars went not only unrecognised but officially denied.

In this play, Chicago has gone through and out the other side to the point where the now racially mixed community tries to decide what should be done to preserve, refurbish or update the house.  These people are two generations away from those in Act 1.  The measure of Norris’ success is that the funniest – and most excruciating scene – is when his characters in 2010 fire off racist jokes at each other.

This is the point at which, through comedy which satirises each character’s stance, we in the audience are forced, as we laugh, to recognise our own hypocritical attitudes – and it doesn’t take much thought to see the wider range of issues to which the laughter can be applied.

Of course, though, the sublety of Norris’ writing could be a disastrous and embarrassing flop on stage, if it were not directed and acted with detailed care to match.  Not only has Tanya Goldberg placed the characters precisely in their American setting – recognising that the drama must be played true to its locality to have global effect – but she and all the actors have understood the style needed.   Comedy requires a degree of exaggeration and pointed timing.  This makes the first act work.  Satire requires an extra fine control to turn comedy into inescapable self-recognition on our part.  This was achieved to a very high degree in the second act.

So my praise goes to all the cast: Paula Arundell (1950s Francine / 2010 Lena); Cleave Williams (Albert / Kevin); Richard Sydenham (Russ / Dan); Wendy Strehlow (Bev / Kathy); Briallen Clarke (Betsy / Lindsey; Nathan Lovejoy (Karl / Steve); and Thomas Campbell who played three roles – Jim / Tom, and Russ and Bev’s son Kenneth, in a kind of reprise which ends the play as he writes his suicide note.

This was a genuine Ensemble production.

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