23 September 2011

Review: Clybourne Park

Clybourne Park 
Melbourne Theatre Company
22 September
Sumner Theatre
to 26 October

Let's get it out in the open. Let's just be honest and talk about what Clybourne Park at the MTC is really talking about. It's an issue I feel very strongly about, something I won't change my mind about, and something that makes too many Melbournians behave like selfish knobs. It's about property development.

And it's about racism and about stuck up, white cunts.

As the MTC continues to explore how tough it is to be a middle class property owner, along comes American playwright Bruce Norris, who won the Pulitzer for this little beauty set in a family home in a white Chicago neighbourhood in 1959 and in the same house in 2009 as the now-black neighbourhood is being gentrified.

At first, it feels like the ultimate white-do-gooder, racism-and-sexism are-bad rant. It's like a competition to see who can resist sniggering the longest, and the first laughs are like watching Guess Who's Coming to Dinner with your Indigenous Australian pal while your dad makes monkey noises each time Sidney Poitier appears and yells at your mum to open his beer. We DO NOT laugh at such things.

Of course we don't, and no one coming to see a show by a posh university-run theatre company with the likes of Greg Stone, Alison Whyte and Berte La Bonte in it is going to expect a hooray-for-segregation story.  So there's no need for director (Peter Evans) to hold back and stress the social commentary in act one. My date for the evening compared the first half to The Help and didn't believe that it was meant to be funny.

It is funny. It's nails-down-the-blackboard satire filled with ridiculous people that is written to be laughed at as loudly as possible.

Act two is much freer with the comedy. Perhaps because it's easier to laugh at conversations we've had or heard. When an argument (Norris writes very fine arguments) develops about whether a joke is funny/offensive because it's about a black man, anal sex or rape, the delicious pain is not in the joke but in the squirming embarrassment and huffy indignation as each person the tries to explain, justify or deny the intent of their harmless words.

Norris says that too many people think "that my plays are about exposing hypocritical liberals...and what's missing from that assessment ... is that I'm something of a hypocritical liberal too." Writing, programming, being in or seeing Clybourne Park should never be about tut-tutting at the ignorant and misguided, but about cringing at our own blatant hypocritical attitudes.

The suburb cast (Stone, Whyte, La Bonte and Patrick Brammall, Laura Gordon, Zahra Newman, Luke Ryan) grasp this tone and relish in Norris's exquisite parallel structure. Each present the worst of their character, but finds their wholeness and their humanity, leaving them so real that the tipping point between laughing and crying is so precarious that's it's easy to slide down the other side without noticing.

Don’t wait for permission to laugh in Clybourne Park. Laugh because it’s so wrong and because it’s so true. Laugh because we know better and because we never learn. Laugh to prove you’re not uptight and because you know you really are.

Photo by Jeff Busby

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