Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
According to Rapture Theatre’s artistic director Michael Emans, Bruce Norris’s 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner is all about “exposing the hypocrisy of middle-class, educated people, who will happily uphold the principles of fairness and equality – unless and until those principles impinge on their own interests.” If this is the intention behind Clybourne Park, then it is wholly successful. This play is tragic, profound, and uproariously funny – but it’s also an uncomfortable watch, skewering the liberal self-image of the typical theatre-goer.
The action takes place in the living room of a large house in a Chicago suburb, with two acts separated by fifty years. In 1959, affluent white couple Bev (Jackie Morrison) and Russ (Robin Kingsland) are selling up. They need to escape the home where their son killed himself; they can’t bear to stay. But their neighbour, Karl (Jack Lord), is dismayed to learn that, because of the cheap asking price, the purchasers are a black family; he doesn’t want ‘colored’ people moving in and lowering the tone – or the house prices.
This first act is easy for a white liberal audience member like me: as expected, I’m appalled by Karl’s racism, embarrassed by his appeal to black servant, Francine, and her husband, Albert (Vinta Morgan), to back him up. I’m drawn to Bev and Russ, stricken by loss, dragged unwillingly into Karl’s drama.
The second act is both more playful and more challenging. It’s 2009, and the neighbourhood is now mostly black. Young white couple, Lindsey (Frances McNamee) and Steve (Jack Lord) have bought the house; they want to bulldoze it and rebuild from scratch. Community group members, Lena and Kevin (Vinta Morgan), have objected to the plans. The neighbourhood has historical significance, Lena maintains. People like Lindsey and Steve can’t just trample over that.
Steve is quick to feel the slight; he’s certain he knows what Lena really means. She doesn’t want them there because they’re white.
And, before we know it, a huge row has erupted, and no one is safe from the fallout. It’s excruciating and toe-curling, as one line after another is crossed.
In essence, Clybourne Park is a comedy of manners, a satirical examination of societal standards and behaviour in the US. Has anything really changed since the 1950s? It would seem not, and the doubling of roles highlights this. Steve clearly thinks all anti-racist talk is fake, a façade belying people’s real beliefs. Lindsey’s painfully right-on posturing is exposed as a fragile edifice, while lawyer Kathy (Jackie Morrison)’s paper-thin skin prevents her from ever seeing beyond her own nose. Lena, on the other hand, clearly delights in stirring things up; her politeness is only a veneer; she wants to rattle Steve and Lindsey out of their self-satisfaction.
The performances are excellent, Lord in particular wringing every ounce of comic potential from his angry-white-man routine. The script is expertly realised in this production, every line given the space to breathe, each joke and jibe the chance to land.
It’s classy, thought-provoking stuff.