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Clybourne Park

The Ensemble Theatre present CLYBOURNE PARK by Bruce Norris at the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli.

Look, Edward Albee is my favourite living American writer, I want to see everything he has written. Now, next to him, Bruce Norris has become my next favourite, living American writer. More than Sam Shepard, David Mamet, Theresa Rebeck, Beth Henley, Suzan-Lori Parks. So do go to see this play at the Ensemble, if you can.

I read, first, his family comedy, THE PAIN AND THE ITCH (2004) – flawed but arresting; then, PURPLE HEART (2002) – a brilliant play about the effect of war on families (it needs a very talented child actor); THE LOW LIFE – a 20 scene, 60 character epic (fable) set in America between 1759 and 1776, that is subtly about free market economics and cut throat capitalism – you can guess why its production history began at the Royal Court Theatre in London, and not in the city of Wall St, New York! I read CLYBOURNE PARK in 2012 and simply loved it. In awe of it, really. This is a play that challenges comfortable habits, a play of ideas, and a brutal ‘celebration’ of the state of contemporary ethical values.

Others have loved it, too: This play has won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. 2012 Tony Award for Best Play, the 2011 Olivier Award for Best New Play, and the 2010 Evening Standard Award. And so, relievedly, I was not alone in my response. I have been, anxiously, waiting for a Sydney company to perform it -The Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) has already premiered it in Australia – and now the Ensemble Theatre has staged it. That they have, is, entirely, creditable. For, there is something deliciously ironic and, dare I say, brave, about this, for this play’s inclusion in the season at the Ensemble, considering the utter, utter social and political subversiveness of its content, particularly at this middle class bastion of the North Shore, is a welcome sign of the confidence the management have to the tolerance and intelligence of their subscription audience. They, certainly, have read its audience well, for this season was sold out before it opened – although, I was able to get a single seat, and the company has scheduled some other performances at the Concourse Theatre in Chatswood.

More power to you all – a raised clenched fist in the air!

CLYBOURNE PARK, set in 2009, in Chicago, could not be a more timely comedy concerning the social values of present day Australia. Its examination of race, property values and liberal pieties seem to be taken straight from the pages and blogosphere of our daily news sources. It begins with its white, middle class characters dealing with a neighbourhood house in their protestant white suburb, been purchased by a black family. I wondered how this audience in Kirribilli, from surrounding suburbs such as Cremorne, Mosman would respond, today, to similar news that an Indigenous, working class family from Redfern was moving in next door. This is only one of many topical, urgent button-pressing issues raised in the razor sharp wit and ‘dramedy’ of CLYBOURNE PARK. Being with this Ensemble audience of a general subscription crowd (I was one of the youngest there!), was especially exciting, but, so accessible is this play, it would be a bracing experience with any audience – the successful history of its international productions instructs us so.

CLYBOURNE PARK is in two acts and set in Chicago. Mr Norris uses the location of the house that the black, working class Younger family bought, in the 1959 Lorraine Hansberry epoch changing play, A RAISIN IN THE SUN (1959) – you may know the 1961 movie, with Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee and Louis Gossett Jnr. (A new production of it, is at present, on Broadway – Denzil Washington, Anika Rose). He, also, borrows and re-introduces a character from the Hansberry play, Karl Linder, the white neighbourhood representative, who attempted to dissuade and bribe the Youngers from moving in. Act One of Mr Norris’ play is set in 1959, and has Karl Linder (Nathan Lovejoy), accompanied by his profoundly deaf and pregnant wife, Betsy (Briallen Clarke), having come from the unsuccessful intervention with the Youngers, debating, with the sellers of the house, Bev (Wendy Strehlow) and her husband, Russ (Richard Sydenham), both in grief over the suicide of their only son, Kenneth, a Korean war veteran, about the communal objections to the transaction, and making a counter monetary offer. (phew, I know some of you are saying, what a sentence – I love Patrick White and I’m reading Thornton Wilder -ha!). The local clergyman, Jim (Tom Campbell), who has been a counsellor to the family in their grief, is also present. Hovering in the background, packing this household down, is Francine (Paula Arundell), the black maid, and her husband, Albert (Cleave Willliams).

Race, suicide, post traumatic stress syndrome (ptsd), disability, pregnancy, religion, class, sexism, homophobia, community responsibilities and ethics, and , of course, capital, M-O-N-E-Y, are all brought onto the field of play as battle weapons. Beginning as a typical naturalistic melodrama, in the style of A RAISIN IN THE SUN, Mr Norris’ play, gradually, but swiftly, escalates into an outrageous comic farce of cauterising intensity. One laughs at the swift logical progressions to the combustible absurdities of the arguments, when we observe the characters’ challenged competitive instincts, their polite and civilised cooperative training, being overwhelmed, and obliterated. When the civilised mask of community is breached in pursuit of entitled dominance, the moments when the low road of profitability are taken in preference to the high road of principle and human ethics, attention must be paid.

The second act is set in the same house, but fifty years later, in 2009, and we watch a different collection of namesakes: Lena, Kevin, Tom, Lindsey, Steve, Kathy, and Dan, wrestle with a similar but even less politically correct world of dilemma, verbal offence rains/ reigns/hails down for sure! Mr Norris asks us through hilarious comedy: “What has Changed?” The answer is nothing – man just goes on repeating himself, like any animal of nature, and with the same savage brutality, even if it is only of the linguistic kind. An Animal Kingdom, indeed.

The Director, Tanya Goldberg, has gathered a wonderful cast to reveal Mr Norris’ play. I have to confess six of these actors fall into my preferred prejudices of skill and I have great admiration for them. Mr Williams is new to me. So, it was with anticipated joy that I found my way to the Ensemble.

In the first act, Richard Sydenham playing, Ross, the father of the dead soldier, and similarly, but less doggedly, Wendy Strehlow, as his wife, Bev, have the task of anchoring this play into realities that need to tie the play to painful ‘earth’ as the others ramp up the absurdities of human frailties into the stratospheric realms of farce (it is much like the task Prunella Scales and Connie Booth have as Sybil Fawlty and Polly Sherman in that timeless series FAWLTY TOWERS, as Basil (John Cleese), Manuel (Andrew Sachs), and the rest, balloon the situations of the narrative, up, up and away!). That Mr Sydenham does this with such understated, but, ultimately devastating affects, accounts for much of the success of the production.

Ms Strehlow is wonderful, after a little initial bump in her interaction with Paula Arundell, who, it seems to me has mis-read the character style of Francine, and tends to burlesque her as a television sit-com comic, instead of what I believe Mr Norris has written, a character straight out of A RAISIN IN THE SUN – Ruth or Lena Younger, with all the dignity of a long suffering but patient victim of discrimination – and so has to juggle, perforce, some musical timings that do not allow her ‘situation’ (Bev’s) in the comic structure to unravel as smoothly as written – e.g. the comically pertinent discussion of the origins of words (Neapolitan and Naples?!!!), with her crossword puzzled husband. Ms Arundell redeems her usual assuredness in the second act creation of Lena (N.B. the reference that Mr Norris has given as a clue for both roles). Cleave Williams is modest but solid in his contributions with a true sense of the life of his men, and the actor’s sensitivity to the ‘musical scoring ‘ of the Norris text.

At last, Nathan Lovejoy has a role, Karl Linder, that allows him to reveal centre stage, the range of his extraordinary talents: intelligence, wit, an almost painful sensibility to human vulnerabilities, coupled with physical grace that has the look of a feather-weight velvet glove, but is, really, a disguised latent and full weighted iron fist, ready to hammer down viciously on all, at the right moment. Mr Lovejoy is gifted with an ineffable sense of comic timing and a full and available range of vocal musicalities. Briallen Clarke, a relative newcomer to our stages, accompanies Mr Lovejoy’s performance as his deaf, pregnant wife, Betsy, and shows herself as not only a marvellous foil for him, but a creatively amusing artist in her own right – the choices are delicate and humanly accurate. Moving.

But, for me the wonderful creation of the clergyman, Jim, by Tom Campbell is the apex of my joy in watching this production. What shines is this actor’s intelligence, wit and control of his skills, that permit him to prudently clue the audience in to this man’s foibles, and therefore comic presence. Of late, I have ‘moaned’ about the lack of fully rounded characterisations (backstories) that the actor has to create ( TRAVELLING NORTH, PROOF, A MOMENT ON THE LIPS), to endow to their responsibilities, from the material the writer has given them, to ensure that we do not only see function on stage, but truth and reality – a character not a caricatured, shallow realisation. Mr Campbell with a glowing inner life plays Jim, radiating energies of complex offers of human weakness and vulnerabilities, accompanied, thrillingly, with the objective actor’s ‘killer’s eye” for the excoriating observation of hypocrisy, and delivers a subtle creation that the favourites of the Restoration Comedies are echoed in – now there is field for these actors to be challenged in (I could suggest a cast to keep all that sophisticated stuff afloat!).

This company of actors are then required, in the second act of the play, to create, demarcate, new characters, with similar traits but fifty years later. There is a precision of choice demonstrated here that is delivered not just through costume (Stanislavsky’s Physical Who), but with shifts of characteristics to maintain realities, but differences as well. It is well done. Bravo.

Ms Goldberg directs with finesse, and has also attracted other artists to assist her vision: Set and Costume by Tobhiyah Stone Feller; Lighting by the ever accurate ‘genius’ Verity Hampson and Sound Designer, Daryl Wallis. This kind of play is no easy task and Ms Goldberg comes through with intelligent and theatrically tight disciplines – if, in my observation, with a small misjudgement with her direction of Francine.

NOISES OFF, CLYBOURNE PARK two comic masterpieces presented in Sydney with great élan.

I recommend CLYBOURNE PARK at the Ensemble Theatre highly, but do go with a sharpened brain, a tired one will get you left behind.