Following his dissection of middle class guilt in The Pain And The Itch, American playwright Bruce Norris turns his biting wit onto the subject of prejudice across a period of 50 years.
Clybourne Park‘s issues are rooted around a three-bed house in a suburb of Chicago, created on the Royal Court’s downstairs stage by designer Robert Innes-Hopkins. In 1959 the house is being sold in a hurry and at a knock-down price by middle-aged white couple Russ and Bev, who are desperate to leave behind a home tainted by tragedy. In 2009, a younger white couple with a baby on the way, Steve and Lindsay, want to buy the same house and knock it down to build another, bigger one.
Norris uses these scenarios to explore issues of race, class and aversion to change, showing how a gap of 50 years hasn’t really altered people’s perspectives at all. In 1959 Russ and Bev are selling the house to a black family, the first to move into the neighbourhood, much to the distaste of local white supremacist Karl. In 2009, with Clybourne Street now a predominantly black neighbourhood, black residents Lena and Kevin are less than pleased that their potential neighbours Lindsay and Steve plan to raze the original house and build what is implied will be a brash, vulgar alternative. Both parts of the play deal with a fear of change and an ignorance of difference, and both are written by Norris in such a clever, observational manner to make them seem entirely credible. Using a deft, cutting wit and strong characterisation, Norris gets to the heart of all of our prejudices, fears and ignorance, showing that what in 1959 was blatant, now still exists but is made latent by a layer of politesse.
The play moves forward at a rapid pace and retains the audience’s rapt attention thanks to a talented cast who make Norris’s characters entirely full-blooded. The principle cast of seven each take on two characters – one in each era – giving a coherence to the whole play. Sophie Thompson and Martin Freeman particularly excel with their comic timing and pitch-perfect accents: Thompson swaps from naive but well-meaning housewife Bev to fast-talking property lawyer Kathy, while Freeman captures both the nasty, unapologetic prejudices of Karl and the modern, disguised ones of Steve. As the second act descends into a melee of coarse joke-telling – and the audience revels in shocked, cringing laughter – Norris blows wide-open the prejudices, on all sides, that simmer under contemporary life.
The quality of the writing and cast is matched by Innes-Hopkins’s set, which immaculately transforms from pastel-green 50s home to a house decaying through neglect, waiting for the people arguing in its living room to decide on its future.