Friday, 10 September 2010

Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris: Review

Yesterday was a day of rain sliding out of the sky in sheets, of cloudy hot skies, of cocktails and mussels and balconies. I went to see Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square. As I queued to buy a packet of Cheese and Chive crisps, a rather small but very polite young man walked past me and apologised for getting in my way. What a nice young man! I thought. They do still teach manners! The nice young man turned out, of course, to be Daniel Radcliffe, presumably on a night off from wizardry and Harry Potter.

We (not me and Daniel, of course) had seats right up in the rafters, which made it feel as if we were watching a puppet show. The first half took place in a stereotypical American household. The wife, in a New Look dress and pinafore, demonstrating intelligence but totally desperate, watched her husband loaf around in his pyjamas, mourning the death of his son. Things progress: it appears that a black family is moving into their house, and the neighbours are not happy. I felt that this act had too much in it: racism, the suggestion of hidden tragedy; it felt bitty, whilst the characters did not live and (even the wife) seemed to be merely mouthpieces - puppets, even. One touch of originality was the racist resident's association leader's deaf wife; but even she seemed played for laughs rather than any deeper meaning. Everything was contrived: a trunk was buried (no doubt for future significance), a colander served as an awkward sign of condescension. (Incidentally, I laid a bet with my companion: every 'issue' had been touched upon - gender, disability, racism - so there was a good chance the second half would have a gay character in it.)

But the second half was like a magnesium flare in the darkness. The curtains opened on the same set: but the house was now decayed. Now the neighbourhood was almost totally black, and a middle class white couple was moving in. The same actors appeared in new guises: the once silent maid now reincarnated as a sassy black woman; the suburban mother as a loudspoken lawyer. Martin Freeman (most famous perhaps, at the moment, for putting a stapler in a jelly, but here showing his real skill) went from playing the slimy, pedantic, wordy residents' association leader, to an articulate, bewildered husband. Norris played cleverly with our notions of offence: as a white middle class person, I go through life wondering why most people are so offended by things all the time; a joke the black woman says (after much goading by the others) caused me (and the rest of the audience) to have a sharp intake of breath - and then to think how absurd it was to be offended at all.

The play neatly showed the links between this new society and the one that had gone before. It ended with everybody storming off: and then had a quiet, poignant coda, which showed how fragile we all are anyway. (Oh, and I won the bet by the way - the male lawyer turned out to be gay.)

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