“Clybourne Park” by Bruce Norris

at the Royal Court Theatre, Friday 27th August 2010

We often see ourselves as superior to those who have gone before us for being far more open and accepting when it comes to issues of race. Bruce Norris’ wildly funny Clybourne Park forces us to reconsider this mindset and asks us to look at how racist we really are. Dominic Cooke’s production at the Royal Court in its UK premiere leaves us questioning through our laughter why we are not all as morally superior we think we are.

Norris’ play, written as a response to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin In The Sun, is split clearly in two parts, the first being set in 1959 and the second in 2009 in one house on Clybourne Street, Chicago. In the first half, structured much like a mid-century farce, Russ and Bev (Steffan Rhodri and Sophie Thompson) are in the process of moving out to make way for a young black family. For reasons unknown the house has sold below its market value, leaving many neighbours unhappy. In the second half a young white couple plan to move into and renovate the same house fifty years later and are faced with similar issues. Links are made between families in each time period, thus allowing us to realise that through others both scenarios could be happening simultaneously, even though they are half a century apart (Wibbly-Wobbly-Timey-Wimey).

Although there is a difference of half a century between the two acts, many themes remain constant, thus examining our inability to change. Along with racial stigma, Norris also shows how failure to talk openly about issues of race, gender and painful memories can be violently destructive. In the second half Steve (Martin Freeman) exposes how the word “offense” has become meaningless in the 21st century as political correctness takes hold, a subject also briefly touched upon in 1959.

While these themes are obvious, Norris’ attempt to consider the ghosts of memory in properties falls somewhat flat. We know that no one wishes to live in houses which are associated with death (for proof we need only look to the patch of grass which now grows where Myra Hindley and Ian Brady once lived), but in Clybourne Park this theme is not approached with enough debate. The interesting material which is there is overshadowed by the comedy and other themes surrounding it.

Robert Innes-Hopkins’ design depicts the same house in two strikingly different states either side of the interval. The early version has a lived in but unloved feel, and the second, although with exactly the same layout and fragments of the same wallpaper, is entirely cold and bereft of life, going hand in hand with Paul Constable’s vivid lighting.

Dominic Cooke directs the small ensemble with care, making sure to make each character unique without turning them into charicatures. The same cast performs in each half, and most have their former parts contrasted in the latter. Steffan Rhodri, for example, broods throughout act one as the formidable Russ but is quite altered as the casual builder Dan later in the evening. Martin Freeman is intelligent and eloquent as the modern-day Steve but backward and jumpy as Karl in the fifties. Sarah Goldberg and Lucien Msamati are also impressive and Sophie Thompson, although at times somewhat too melodramatic as Bev, redeems herself in the role of the self-centred lawyer Kathy.

Clybourne Park’s structure means that each part in fact stands alone as a witty take on differences in society. It is together, however, that the different scenes hold power and clever references to the other in each serve to reinforce our understanding. Norris does tackle difficult issues, but in a way which forces us to laugh. Comedy of the year? It could well be.

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