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01.10.2010- Clybourne Park

Friday, 1 October 2010

Clybourne Park, The Royal Court Theatre, 29.09.2010, 7.30pm.

Clybourne Park, the latest in a recent string of sell out successes for The Royal Court, is a play which takes a satirical look at issues of property and race in America over the last fifty years. Brilliantly written by Bruce Norris, Act One (set in 1959) focuses on Russ and Bev, a white, middle-class couple who sell their suburban house at a reduced price to a black family, a move which ruffles more than a few feathers in their parochial Clybourne Park neighbourhood. Fast forward fifty years later to Act Two, which centres on a white couple attempting an extensive renovation of the same property, and you have a play which is as acerbic as it is hilarious.

The genius of Clybourne Park lies in the way it has been structured. By presenting events episodically, we are afforded only the briefest of glimpses into the characters and the dynamics of their on-stage relationships. This in turn makes the dialogue more engaging, as it remains the only source of back-story throughout. By creating a gulf of fifty years between the acts of the play, Norris also has the ability to juxtapose social attitudes and values from two contrasting epochs, as he questions whether time has altered, eradicated or simply transferred the prejudices of the Clybourne Park community. The doubling of roles across contexts also gives the remarkable cast ample opportunity to demonstrate their versatility, as well as evoking the notion that the previous inhabitants themselves are as much a part of the property as the bricks and mortar which it is constructed from.

As I have mentioned, the ensemble cast was remarkable, but particular praise must go to Sophie Thompson and Martin Freeman, in the roles of Bev/Kathy and Karl/Steve respectively. I was particularly struck by Thompson's physical presence in the space, particularly when she was playing Bev, the highly strung 1950's housewife. Every movement she made communicated the character's underlying insecurities, as the audience came to understand the tragic truth of the events which had unfolded at the house previously. Freeman seemed to relish in the physical and verbal comedy of the piece, and maintained an extremely strong stage presence throughout. Each of the actors had obviously worked extensively in rehearsal on all of the characters they portrayed and had a clear understanding of their individual roles. They had evidently established a strong group dynamic which ensured they were able to deliver the dialogue-heavy script seamlessly to the audience.

The design of the piece, by Robert Innes Hopkins, was extremely simple, but very effective. The location of the play doesn't change, and this sense of stasis further illustrates the idea that nothing in the neighbourhood ever really alters, regardless of how time moves on. The set itself consisted of a fully functioning interior, which transformed from a beautifully kept home to a dilapidated shell during the course of the interval. Paule Constable's lighting created the perfect atmosphere for the piece, and was particularly poignant at the conclusion of the play, as the secret history of the property physically manifested itself on stage.

Clybourne Park is not only one of the funniest plays I've ever seen, it also has to be one of the most thought provoking. Not only does it seek to shatter taboos and challenge notions of political correctness through biting satire, but also illustrates that the legacy of the past has an inescapable effect on both the present and future.

Clybourne Park runs at The Royal Court until Saturday 2nd October. Next year, it will transfer to the West End, and I'd really recommend going to see it if you get the chance.

(Image credit: Google Images.)

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