Here’s the good news- Bruce Norris’ prize winning play is so successful that before it had even opened at the Ensemble Theatre, it had already sold out and they have had to schedule two more performances after their run at the Ensemble at the Concourse, Chatswood.
Here’s the extra good news- it’s also a rock solid performance of Norris’ play. Set in a fictitious suburb in Chicago in 1959, (Lorraine Hansberry fans will recognise Clybourne Park from ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ and Norris’ play is written in response to it), middle-aged couple Bev (Wendy Strehlow) and Russ (Richard Sydenham), grieving the loss of their son, have sold their house in this all white suburban microcosm unknowingly to a black family. Neighbour Karl Lindner (Nathan Lovejoy) enters the house and expresses every argument he can to convince the couple to withdraw the sale and protect the status quo of the neighbourhood. Temper this is Act Two, set in 2009, where white couple Lindsey (Briallen Clarke) and Steve (Lovejoy) have bought the same house, now a predominantly black neighbourhood, and must appease the neighbours and those who want to protect its black history with their plans to demolish the house and build their dream home.
‘Clybourne Park’ deals with more than just race and from more than one perspective. It is a play that also deals with property, grief, post-war traumatic stress and even explores marriage, religion, class and the outsider. Director Tanya Goldberg has utilised a strong cast of many new faces to the Ensemble and we can feel the shift in energy in the theatre- the Ensemble is trying and succeeding with ‘Clybourne Park’ to offer a theatricality strong experience and bring experienced actors new to the Ensemble into the mix and widen the base of audience who might normally subscribe as well.
Nathan Lovejoy is the standout of the cast. His Karl is detestably believable and Lovejoy knows how to manipulate each nuance into representing the kind of qualities possessed by people who might have voted for Pauline Hansen- a healthy dose of fear-mongering and the ability to exert his power over others. He honestly believes the fabric of society will be destroyed and in many ways, he is right. What we now understand is that society needed a good shake-up. Even likeable white couple Bev and Russ, played ably by Strehlow and Sydenham, in essence seem potentially progressive in thinking but we witness their white privilege and their treatment of servant Francine (Paula Arundell) and her husband Albert (Cleave Williams). We realise that being friendly to your maid is in no way offering equality. Francine is constantly treated with implied commands to stay back later, come in on weekends, get the trunk, etc and Cleave is put to work almost upon arrival. Any proffered ‘gifts’ always come with conditions and so Francine and Albert are wary of accepting anything as they silently stand in the background, observing the unravelling of white fear.
This is beautifully bookended in the second half as Arundell’s character Lena reminds us of the significance of Clybourne Park as an historical milestone in changing suburban class demographics as it struggles to now become a homogenised integrated up-and-coming area. The play explores shifting real estate as much as it does shifting perspectives and each half cleverly reminds us of now and then in power, voice and understanding. Norris draws so many parallels in each half that each character and actor is given great moments to contradict themselves and explore the two halves of their characters’ possibilities.
It’s a good cast. As mentioned, Lovejoy is superb and Cleave Williams was another good find for the Ensemble and I hope to see him in many more shows in Sydney. Sydenham, Strehlow, Arundell, Thomas Campbell (Jim/Tom/Kenneth) and Clarke (who has great comic timing as Betsy and a terrific range as Lindsey) have been well cast and although I think the opening night was slightly under-cooked performance wise- the play was yet to find its full rhythm, as the sell-out run continues, it will be a highlight in the Ensemble’s season.
Kudos to set and costume designer Tobhiyah Stone Feller, whose set for the house can be completely transformed for the second half so we can see how much this suburb has been left to its own devices, out of fear and neglect.
Goldberg has done a good job with ‘Clybourne Park’ and once again, it’s smart programming to choose lots of ‘ideas plays’ to complement the piece of experimentation the Ensemble will allow themselves in their program later in their season. I am thrilled for them that those choices are paying off with enviable audience numbers. Other companies might want to take note.