I began writing Clybourne Park about four years ago, around the time we were doing The Pain and the Itch at the Royal Court, and over a year before Obama would be ele...… Read more
In 1959 Russ and Bev are selling their desirable two-bed at a knock-down price. This enables the first Black family to move into the neighbourhood, creating ripples of discontent amongst the cosy white urbanites of Clybourne Park. In 2009, the same property is being bought by Lindsey and Steve whose plans to raze the house and start again is met with a similar response. Are the issues festering beneath the floorboards actually the same fifty years on?
‘Genius.’ The Times
‘Norris’s play nails the thorny subject of race relations with a bilious zest that takes one’s breath away.’ Guardian
Bruce Norris’ (The Pain and the Itch) satirical new play explores the fault line between race and property.
Director Dominic Cooke’s recent Royal Court credits include Aunt Dan and Lemon, The Fever, Seven Jewish Children, Wig Out!, Now or Later and The Pain and the Itch.
Age guidance 14+
Running time: 2 hrs (including interval)
£10 Mondays sponsored by French Wines
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Dates in August
|Thu 26 Aug 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Fri 27 Aug 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Sat 28 Aug 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Tue 31 Aug 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
Dates in September
|Wed 1 Sep 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Thu 2 Sep 2010||7:00pm||Press Night||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Fri 3 Sep 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Sat 4 Sep 2010||3:30pm||Saturday Matinees||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Sat 4 Sep 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Mon 6 Sep 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£10|
|Tue 7 Sep 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Wed 8 Sep 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Thu 9 Sep 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Fri 10 Sep 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Sat 11 Sep 2010||3:30pm||Saturday Matinees||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Sat 11 Sep 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Mon 13 Sep 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£10|
|Tue 14 Sep 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Wed 15 Sep 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Thu 16 Sep 2010||3:30pm||Mid-Week Matinee||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Thu 16 Sep 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Fri 17 Sep 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Sat 18 Sep 2010||3:30pm||Audio Described Performance, Saturday Matinees||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Sat 18 Sep 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Mon 20 Sep 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£10|
|Tue 21 Sep 2010||7:30pm||Post-Show Talk||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Wed 22 Sep 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Thu 23 Sep 2010||3:30pm||Mid-Week Matinee||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Thu 23 Sep 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Fri 24 Sep 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Sat 25 Sep 2010||3:30pm||Saturday Matinees||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Sat 25 Sep 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Mon 27 Sep 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£10|
|Tue 28 Sep 2010||7:30pm||Captioned Performance||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Wed 29 Sep 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Thu 30 Sep 2010||3:30pm||Mid-Week Matinee||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Thu 30 Sep 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
Dates in October
|Fri 1 Oct 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Sat 2 Oct 2010||3:30pm||Saturday Matinees||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Sat 2 Oct 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
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5 stars Georgina Brown, Mail on Sunday, Sunday September 12th 2010
Clybourne Park, American playwright Bruce Norris’s smart, spiky, provocative play about racism and property, is not just scabrously funny but also brilliantly cringe-making.
In a sun-dappled suburban villa which middle-aged, middle-class Americans Russ and Bev are moving from, Russ (Steffan Rhodri) sits silently spooning Neapolitan ice-cream out of a tub. His wife (Sophie Thompson, Emma’s younger sister) twitters in a super-bright, high-pitched tone about the derivation of the word Neapolitan. Only when the vicar pops in does the subject which the couple are clearly avoiding – their son’s sucide in this house when he got back from service in Korea – emerge. Their different ways of dealing with grief – she prattles on vacuously, he bottles it up – is tearing them apart. Their neighbours are preoccupied by other issues, so taboo that they should be unmentionable. karl (Martin Freeman) is, unfortunately, a stranger to common decency. Arriving with his deaf wife, Betsy, he tries to pursuade Bev and Russ not to sell their house to ‘coloured’ people because it will bring down the price of the property.
‘Don’t they have needs too?’ suggests Bev.
‘In principle,’ says the vicar.
‘But you can’t live in a principle. Gotta live in a house!’ says Karl.
The exchange would be toe-curling anyway, but Norris raises the squirm-inducing factor a hundred-fold by having Francine, the near mute black maid, in the room at the same time. At one point, crass Karl asks Francine if she skis. when she answers ‘No’, Bev retorts: ‘There is just something about skiing that doesn’t appeal to the Negro community.’ Deaf Betsy (Sarah Goldberg), who hasn’t a clue whats being said, beams with idiotic inappropriateness. We, by by contrast, can’t believe our ears, and laugh in embarrassment.
The second half begins 50 years later. It slowly dawns that the near-derelict room on stage is the same one from the previous scene. The actors, now playing different characters, have gathered to discuss a bid by a young white couple (Freeman and Goldberg) to pull the house down and rebuild it. The residents in what is now a black neighbourhood object on historical grounds to the demolition. But do they really mean they don’t want white people taking over their hard-won patch? Once again, this is a battle for territory on racial grounds.
Dominic Cooke’s flawlessly performed production culminates in a contest between Freeman’s slick, white, liberal man and the super-cool, glamorous Lena (Lorna Brown, who had played the maid) to prove their total absence of prejudice by cracking the most offensively racist, sexist jokes imaginable, which, of course, only succeeds in proving the reverse. Outrageously, shockingly entertaining. 5 stars Caroline McGinn, Time Out, Tuesday September 7th 2010
If you can’t bear to find out why a white woman is like a tampon then don’t enter the discomfort zone of Bruce Norris. The New York-based playwright specialises in painfully sharp comedies which probe Western society’s open wounds: choice recent scabs include liberal hypocrisy and child abuse and now America’s sorest spot of all – racism. Like its predecessors, ‘Clybourne Park’ is appallinglyfunny. And it’s even better – more subtle, more compassionate – than ‘The Pain and The Itch’, which Dominic Cooke picked for his cracking debut as Royal Court artistic director back in 2007.
Cooke’s Socratic mission for the Court – to goad its audiences – has been most uproariously fulfilled in hard-hitting comedies like this one. His astute, long-standing sympathy for Norris’s work shows in the faultless casting and comic chutzpah of this production, which will make you cringe horribly even as you’re cracking up with laughter.
The action unfolds in one Chicago house at two time points: 1950 and 2009. In act one white neighbours call on their departing friends Bev and Russ, to protest because they have sold their house to a coloured family. Act two fast forwards 50 years and neatly inverts the politics. The actors switch roles (Martin Freeman is especially versatile), as young white buyers in a black area suspect that the residents’ objections have more to do with their skin colour than their architect’s plans. Actually, the playwright is the cheekiest renovator of the lot, having based this entire set-up on African-American theatre’s biggest sacred cow, Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ – an act of some verve for a white writer.
But it doesn’t matter if you don’t get that reference: it just adds one more layer of outrage to a play which is so committed to boundary-testing that it begins by poking fun at a pregnant deaf woman and climaxes in an inexcusably funny duel of racist jokes.
Above all, ‘Clybourne Park’ makes racism personal: one reason why it walks the notoriously hard line between funny and offensive. Also, a touch of tragedy exalts and humanises the hilariously awful property rows. Sophie Thompson is wonderful as ‘50s housewife Bev: as she flits divertingly around her husband (Steffan Rohdri is pure despair in a chair), you realize that her comically upbeat gurning is really a mask of grief. Thanks to the superb actors, and Norris’s note-perfect characterisations, the undertow of deep sadness will stay with you long after the laughter fades. 4 stars Charles Spencer, The Daily Telegraph, Monday September 6th 2010
Not since the British premiere of David Mamet’s Oleanna in 1993 has a play at the Royal Court set the audience on such a roar as Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park. There are moments when the mixture of laughter and disbelief among the audience, whose liberal pieties are challenged throughout, prove every bit as exciting as what’s happening on stage.
Norris, an American, is in the business of ruffling feathers and giving the hypocrisy of middle-class bien-pensants a good bashing as he proved three years ago with The Pain and the Itch, also staged at the Court.
Clybourne Park is even better, its study of racial prejudice in America presented with both structural elegance and a superb ear for often viciously comic dialogue.
The first act is set in 1959 and is a sequel to Lorraine Hansbury’s celebrated play of that year, A Raisin in the Sun, in which a black family move into a white suburb of Chicago and are met with virulent opposition from the residents’ association. Here we meet the white vendors, who are anxious to leave because their son committed suicide in the house a couple of years earlier.
Norris brilliantly combines a genuinely moving account of a family torn-apart by grief with sharp satire on the neighbours who gradually reveal their racist tendencies, all played out in front of a black maid and her husband.
Then in the second half Norris pulls off a daring coup. We are in the same house but it is now 2009 and a white couple are trying to buy into the neighbourhood that has become almost exclusively black. After years of social problems the area is coming up again. The incomers want to raze the old humble home and put up something grander. But black Americans now control the residents’ committee, and want to preserve buildings that have acquired cultural significance. Or are they being racist too, merely wanting to keep out the whites just as the whites tried to keep out the blacks 50 years earlier?
All this might seem schematic if it weren’t for the richness of the characterisation and the rawness of the subject matter. Many white middle-class Americans like to pretend that racial prejudice no longer exists but Norris suggests the very reverse is true in an extraordinary climactic scene that threatens to blow the roof off the theatre when the aggressive white buyer and the superbly assured black woman on the residents’ committee deliver a succession of increasingly outrageous racist jokes as if fighting a duel.
Dominic Cooke’s superb production deftly negotiates the play’s amazing mixture of edgy humour and deeper feeling, with the cast playing two roles each, one in 1959, and the other in 2009.
There is especially outstanding work from Sophie Thompson as the bereaved mother and a hideously loud-mouthed modern lawyer; from Martin Freeman as the slimily racist resident association boss, and Lorna Brown as both the apparently humble maid and the supremely confident black resident resisting the white invasion.
Under Cooke’s outstanding artistic directorship, the Royal Court continues to startle, provoke and amuse in equal measure. 4 stars Paul Taylor, The Independent, Monday September 6th 2010
The US dramatist Bruce Norris (The Pain and the Itch) delights in undermining liberal complacencies.
In his outrageously funny and squirm-inducing new play, he trains his satirical sights on the explosive subject of race and the taboos controlling how we talk about it. His Clybourne Park receives its English premiere in a superlatively performed production by Dominic Cooke.
Clybourne Park has a venerable theatrical ancestry. It’s the all-white Chicago neighbourhood into which the hopeful black Younger family aspires to move in A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 drama about the difficulties of integration. In the first act of his play, Norris has had the productive and provocative notion of creating a back story for that classic. We’re permitted to eavesdrop on the white couple who, having sold their house to the Youngers, are vainly pressurised by the white community to undo the deal. The second act fast-forwards to 2009 where the tables are seemingly turned.
In both periods, the disputants blunder across the conversational minefield of race with excruciatingly comic results. Martin Freeman pulls off a brilliant double. In the first half, he’s the most racist of the characters – Karl Lindner, whose attempts to stop the sale are breathtakingly tactless. In the second, he’s the oddly complementary Steve, the more-tolerant-than-thou white newcomer whose peeved efforts to bring the underlying racial antagonism out into the open expose him to the aggrieved charge of trying to tar the black representatives with racism and then trigger a disgracefully funny contest in which the unsmiling participants test one another’s limits by telling escalatingly offensive jokes. It’s an irony not lost on Steve that he picked up his gag from his one black acquaintance and it’s no wonder that his pregnant wife (excellent Sarah Goldberg) is flustered into making the tellingly crass claim that “half my friends are black”. 4 stars Sarah Hemming, Financial Times, Monday September 6th 2010
We have President Obama in the White House, but just how harmonious are race relations in less prestigious neighbourhoods? The Royal Court poses the question with Bruce Norris’s brilliant, unsettling Clybourne Park, which goes to work on subcutaneous prejudice like a needle on a splinter.
Norris’s last play at this address froze the laughter on your face by pushing at the boundaries of middle-class liberalism. Here it is tolerance in present-day America that is under scrutiny and Norris pegs the moments when bigotry peeps through with toe-curling precision. His weapon is comedy and boy can he use it: he makes you laugh then wish that you hadn’t.
He focuses on that most grisly of battlegrounds: property. We visit a pleasant family home in a desirable Chicago neighbourhood twice: first in 1959, as a white couple prepare to sell the house to a black family, then in 2009, as a white couple prepare to move into the now mixed neighbourhood and rebuild the house. Both acts begin with an uneasy meeting to discuss the move; both slide disturbingly quickly from pleasantries to uglier exchanges.
Though the play never budges from the hallway, Norris pulls the shifting state of the nation in through the front door. In 1959, Russ and Bev, the couple selling the house, are trying to escape the ghost of their dead son, a traumatised vet of the Korean war. The indifference of the local community has played a part in their decision to go, so when a community spokesperson turns up to complain that a black buyer will bring property prices down, he gets short shrift from Russ. There follows an argument in front of the family’s black maid and her husband.
In 2009, the black couple are residents and chat comfortably with their new neighbours about work colleagues and holidays. But though much has changed, resentments soon emerge, as the resident couple suggest that the newcomers’ plans to rebuild the house take no heed of the neighbourhood’s complex history.
The characters’ linguistic contortions to keep within politically correct boundaries make for wicked comedy, which Dominic Cooke’s beautifully pitched production manages with great timing. But that instinct for precision also ensures that the serious import of the play emerges. There is a moment in the first act when the bereaved couple, superbly played by Steffan Rhodri and Sophie Thompson, sit in silence amid the packing cases, conveying a wealth of inarticulate sorrow.
The same cast play similar types in both acts and the performances would be hard to better. Martin Freeman, in particular, excels twice as the decent face of uptight white resentment, with Sarah Goldberg as his horrified wife. Provocative, troubling comedy. 4 stars Siobhan Murphy, Metro, Monday September 6th 2010
US playwright Bruce Norris revels in creating discord and discomfort, and Clybourne Park builds into a smart exercise in popping smug convictions. A darkly funny play, subtly referencing Lorraine Hansberry’s iconic A Raisin In The Sun, its two distinct halves mercilessly expose how, while we may tut-tut at blundering attitudes to race in 1959, things really aren’t so different in Obama-era 2009.
In the first half, Russ and Bev are selling their house in Chicago’s white Clybourne Park neighbourhood to escape agonising memories. But by opting for a knock-down price, they’ve allowed the first black family (Hansberry’s Younger family, although not named) to get a foot on the property ladder there. Norris now imagines Hansberry’s poisonous Mr Lindner, from the local ‘improvement association’, rushing to persuade Russ and Bev to block the sale. The confrontation that ensues is an ugly collision, where toxic cliché abounds.
Come 2009, the same, now-dilapidated house has been bought by a young white couple who plan to tear it down and build their dream home. Except the community representatives of what is now considered an historic black neighbourhood object. Their meeting descends into gloriously rude confusion, with racist jokes flung like weapons.
The same cast playing both scenarios and the textual mirroring Norris employs are neat ways of emphasising his ‘plus ça change’ thesis. His set-ups aren’t exactly original and, in truth, a reliance on scabrous humour makes his agonising subject matter a little too easy to bear.
But it’s easy to be swept up by the play’s fierce energy in Dominic Cooke’s pitch-perfect production, where all the awkwardness and stuttering miscommunication are superbly rendered. Martin Freeman is terrific at both twitchy Karl (Lindner) and homebuyer Steve, bewildered by how fast and far things unravel once he’s uttered the word ‘racism’. Sophie Thompson finds the middle ground between playing 1950s housewife Bev as cartoon-funny and as three dimensional, grief-racked woman. And Lucian Msamati employs devastating comic timing in both acts. In less adept hands, this may have proven less convincing a play but right now it can be thoroughly savoured.
5 stars Kate Bassett, The Independent, Sunday September 5th 2010
The sun is shining over Chicago, at first.
Its rays dapple the Stollers’ net curtains in the deceptively idyllic suburb that’s the setting for Bruce Norris’s new play, Clybourne Park. This darkening comedy is bold and satirically lacerating, a drama about real estate and racism – the latter traced though half a century in this so-called melting pot.
Though different kettles of fish, the US and UK have enough parallels for director Dominic Cooke’s cast to provoke howls of laughter and intakes of breath. This ensemble tread a fine line between the hilarious and seriously excruciating, even as their characters lurch from one faux pas to the next.
To begin with we’re transported back to 1959. Bev Stoller (Sophie Thompson) is bustling around in a frilly apron, chattering with inane cheeriness about queer foreign place names. Her husband Russ (Steffan Rhodri) sits flicking through a copy of National Geographic. Is he laidback – tolerating her manic cheerfulness – or depressed and seething?
We gather this couple is moving soon, to be nearer his new office. In truth, however, they’re trying to escape a skeleton in their closet.
The black housemaid, Francine (Lorna Brown), is helping Bev pack, politely turning down the repeated offer of cast-off knicknacks. Then Martin Freeman’s preppy Karl Lindner, from the local Improvement Association, intrudes. While beaming chummily, he brings the news that the folks who’ve bought number 406 are (unbeknown to the Stollers) “coloureds”, and the association wants the sale halted. Lindner insists the Youngers’ arrival will ruin this hitherto all-white neighbourhood.
If some of those names sound curiously familiar, that’s because 406 Clybourne Street is the dream home which remains offstage in A Raisin in the Sun. And Lindner was the cameo Wasp in that great African-American drama by Lorraine Hansberry, visiting the Youngers in their ghetto-like tenement, pressurising them to stay put.
Norris’s drama (without requiring any knowledge of Hansberry’s play) enthrallingly pictures how this crisis played out on the other side of the tracks. This playwright is eagle-eyed when it comes to subtle xenophobia. Then he engineers escalating tensions to be both farcical and alarming, with Francine and her husband (Lucian Msamati) dragged into the segregationist debate. Russ’s bile, directed at Lindner, is also gloriously eruptive.
Thompson’s twittering Bev hides startlingly depths of grief, and Norris’s characters are unsettlingly mercurial too.
Furthermore, Clybourne Park fast-forwards after the interval to Obama’s not entirely integrated US. Here the cast play new characters, on the same geographical spot but in dynamically altered relationships. A young white couple, who’ve just bought number 406, are taken aback when their snazzy rebuilding plans meet resistance from the now predominantly black Owners’ Association.
Lorna Brown’s elegant Lena (a great-niece of Mrs Younger), is ice-cool, almost supercilious. Then when Freeman’s Steve – the purchaser – accuses her of covert racism, political correctness goes out the window and the two sides launch into a kind of verbal shoot-out. Each side fires off shocking racist jokes (anti-black and anti-white). This showdown feels at once deeply hostile, wildly liberated and – for the audience at least, because it’s so appallingly funny – like a bonding experience. 5 stars Quentin Letts, Daily Mail, Friday September 3rd 2010
Those people next door, could they really be us?
The Royal Court has come up with a cracking satire about the nightmarish tangle of 21st-century race awareness. It is set in Chicago and is by an American playwright, Bruce Norris, yet its nose-tweaking of today’s politics of manners translates fluently into modern London.
It also has a talented cast which includes Martin Freeman, known to television viewers from The Office and the BBC’s recent Sherlock, in which he played Watson. He demonstrates two good American accents and is plainly an even more talented chap than we thought.
The play’s first half is set in 1959, in a family house in a well-to-do white part of Chicago. The second half is set in the same house in 2009, by which time the area has become run-down and black.The same actors are used throughout. For instance, in the first half Mr Freeman plays white, bespectacled Karl, a stalwart of the community who is horrified that the house is about to be sold to a black family.
Karl, prone to fastidious gestures and squeaky indignation, hopes to prevent the sale happening, so fretful is he that the arrival of blacks might send local house prices dropping. Karl has a pregnant wife called Betsy.
In the second half Mr Freeman plays a white yuppie, Steve, who with his pregnant wife Lindsey has just bought the same house. Steve and Lindsey will be the first whites to have lived in the area for years. They encounter a racial resistance not entirely dissimilar to that which opposed the arrival of the black family in 1959.
Steve may not wear glasses. He may not wear the pork-pie hat and drip-dry plaids favoured by his Fifties alter ego Karl, but there are certain similarities. This ingenious plot throws up an agreeably mixed bag of paradoxes and parallels. They do not all sit comfortably with one another. We, the audience, become confused. Our sympathies are tugged this way and that. Warning: amid the jocularity are some distinctly adult lines.
You come away realising how neurotic we have become about racial politics, about property ambitions and much else. Like any really good satire, this story holds a mirror to our shrewish faces. Playwright Norris has alighted on the territorial instincts of even the most apparently liberal men and women.
But I am worried that this makes it all sound terribly intellectual and clever-clever. It is a better play than that. The 1959 couple who are selling the house, Russ and Bev, are doing so because their adult son, a former soldier, committed suicide in one of the rooms there. This sad tale gives the play an extra dimension. Territorial we may be, but when something bad happens, we often want to move.
Sophie Thompson makes Bev an outwardly irritating housewife but, underneath, a lonely creature baffled by her tragedy. Come the second half, Miss Thompson has transformed herself into a tough-bitch property lawyer.
Again, top work, not only from her but from the entire cast and director Dominic Cooke. 5 stars Libby Purves, The Times, Friday September 3rd 2010
Genius as Miller meets Ayckbourn
I spent the interval racked with worry that this play might decline in Act II. If that had happened I would have trudged heartbroken into the night, unable to write a word. No danger, though: it roared off again into the stratosphere, glittering and throwing off sparks.
Bruce Norris’s premiere is billed as a satire on race and property in America, in 1959 and then the present day; but it reaches wider. Norris is occupying territory somewhere between Arthur Miller and vintage Ayckbourn, and holding it triumphantly. The first act sees a house move: Russ the morose husband, his wife Bev in a Doris Day skirt wittering like Lucille Ball. Sophie Thompson is an adept comedienne, and artfully keeps the pain as well hidden as Bev would, only letting edges show.
Enter Jim the dim vicar, and then Karl, who is Martin Freeman pleasingly unrecognisable as a terrible prat in a sports jacket. He is horrified that the house has been bought by “a coloured family” (“Who next, the Red Chinese?”) and his attempt to make the owners retract evolves into an excruciating confrontation, in pitch-perfect Fifties cant, between him, the equally racist vicar, and the black maid (Lorna Brown) with her husband.
When he tries black mail over their family tragedy – no spoilers, but it’s dark indeed – Bev succumbs to terrible, audible, offstage grief then resumes housewifely fluttering. It works because we believe in Thompson’s performance, and because tragedy is human, humans are absurd, and absurdity equals comedy.
With writing and acting as seamlessly fine as this we are grateful to be reminded of that fact, in shocked, cathartic laughter.
The second act finds the actors in new characters, artfully reflecting the first (Freeman as a completely different type of prat, Thompson as a fabulously awful lawyer).
Fifty years on, the neighbourhood has changed and white yuppies are arguing with sophisticated black neighbours about planning. Themes and jokes from the first act are woven in with intricate kilim brilliance: it is not a mirror image of naive 1959 racism, but a complex modern brew of hypocrisy, awkward liberalism and lurking unsayables.
As self-control evaporates, a series of challenges and abominable two-way racist jokes leads to dazzling cross-play in which everyone – black, white, gay, female, pregnant, patriotic – ends up offended. Nor is the old tragedy forgotten: it comes poignantly full circle to remind us that next to love and grief all is trivial. You don’t often come out of a comedy thinking that. Genius. 5 stars Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard, Friday September 3rd 2010
Clybourne Park is the funniest play of the year
Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park is an achingly intelligent study of middle-class hypocrisy. Shrewd about racial prejudice, territorialism and marital discord, it will make audiences of all kinds feel ill at ease. More to the point, it’s the funniest new play of the year.
Its setting is the Chicago neighbourhood of the title — the location for A Raisin In The Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s Fifties drama about race and housing.
In the first half, which takes place in 1959 and carries a distinct whiff of Mad Men, white couple Russ and Bev are moving out; the neighbours are scandalised to discover that they are selling to a black family. In the second, it’s 2009 and we’re in the same property, now dilapidated but the centre of ambitious redevelopment plans.
The second half feeds ingeniously off the traumas of the first. Robert Innes-Hopkins’s design makes the connection tangible. Language and legislation may have altered, but tensions persist, and so do toxic social clichés.
Yet Norris does a lot more than peddle the line that nothing has changed. His writing sparkles. He is subtle, and even elements that initially feel cartoonish are wickedly undercut.
Part of his skill lies in his refusal to see racism as blandly monolithic. He depicts it as complex and layered, manifesting itself in strikingly different ways. He’s adept, too, at making the past vivid while treating the present with an unusual degree of detachment. And the most nagging anxieties are not articulated; instead they are left to gnaw at the audience.
In Dominic Cooke’s crisp production, Martin Freeman is a delight as pedantic Karl and Sophie Thompson is spot-on as robotic Bev. There’s excellent work from Steffan Rhodri and Sam Spruell, a nicely understated performance from Lucian Msamati, a punchy one from Lorna Brown, and a bright-eyed freshness from Sarah Goldberg.
Clybourne Park gets off to a sluggish start, the plot is a little too contrived, and the humour drawn from one character’s deafness leaves a somewhat sour taste. But that, you could say, is Norris’s gift: he is the poet laureate of discomfort, a startling and unsettling observer of miscommunication, and this is thrillingly provocative theatre. 4 stars Michael Billington, The Guardian, Friday September 3rd 2010
Painful yet funny saga of racism’s climb up the property ladder
It was Bruce Norris’s The Pain and the Itch that three years ago signalled Dominic Cooke’s intention to use the Court’s stage to question bourgeois values. Now he brings us an even more lethal satire from Norris that confronts the intersection between property and race. The result is a troublingly funny play which argues, however much America has changed over the past 50 years, rooted prejudices remain intact.
The play is set in the same Chicago house in 1959 and 2009, and has a neat symmetry. The first act, openly inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin In The Sun, reveals the consternation when a white, middle-class couple propose to sell their Clybourne Park property to a black family: though their aim is to escape the memory of the suicide of their Korean war vet son, they are savagely accused of undermining property values. Fifty years on, the scene is re-enacted; this time it is a question of white interlopers who want to raze the house and rebuild, and are charged with destroying historic memories of an ethnically rich community.
Baldly summarised, the play sounds like American sociology, but it is infinitely richer. Norris’s skill lies in stripping away the polite camouflage of euphemism to reveal the racism of America, then and now. In 1959 the debate about coloured infiltration of a white sanctuary is conducted with staggering insensitivity in front of the black maid and her husband, patronised even by the liberal house-owners.
But the gloves come off in the second act. After a deal of verbal skirmishing, the white male house-buyer tells a racist joke which is trumped by a black female resident. Far from trading in stereotypes, what Norris is showing is that, even in Obama’s America and in the age of political correctness, racial antagonism is exposed in all its rawness when property is at stake.
I’m not equipped to judge the accuracy of his observation, but, in Cooke’s excellently acted production, it carries enormous emotional charge. Martin Freeman in both acts becomes the horrifically plausible spokesman for white resentment, while Sarah Goldberg looks on as his appalled wife. Lorna Brown and Lucien Msamati, mutinously subservient in the first half, convincingly show the emergence of a black couple’s economic power. And Sophie Thompson is dazzling, first as a pseudo 1950s liberal and then as a sharp-witted lawyer. Even if the issue of the war veteran returns awkwardly at the climax, Norris’s play nails the thorny subject of race relations with a bilious zest that takes one’s breath away.
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