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Review of Circa's Clybourne Park

Review of Circa's Clybourne Park

Sharon Ellis
September 10, 2012

Clybourne Park is about real estate manifestations of racial bigotry, and while it’s set in Chicago don’t think for a second that its issues are not also ours. We watch and preen smugly, after all our race relations are the best in the world and our suburban real estate isn’t all tied up with ghetto thinking - yeah right. What was all that recent school decile nonsense?

Bruce Norris’s ingenious plot is of two halves. The first act is set in 1959 and the second 50 years later. Same place, same house, same actors even some of the same lines. No, they are not quite exactly the same people, but it’s the same bigotry modernised, essentially the same issues and this time festooned with all the claptrap of pretending to broad minded thinking and educated correctness. The issues are those hard facts of real estate racism where people are tempted not to put their money where their mouth isn’t.

Norris’s language has the potential, not quite realised in this production, to be a riproaring electrifying exploding fireworks display. The characters talk over and under each other, they don’t listen, they make desperate and outrageous claims and they insult each other with a vicious deviousness and all this neatly contained within a sitcom-genteel frame. It’s the real thing. It isn’t a polite intellectual treatment of the big subject. It is a smart and clever play with a cast big enough to carry its universal message. For all the seriousness of the subject matter there is a ready trade in uproariously funny crude racist jokes that are way over the edge but completely relevant.

In the first act sad frumpy grieving Russ is downright shockingly rude to the poor anxious ill-advised little do-gooder vicar/pastor and a good thing it is too, he needs taking down. Kiwis may not have used such language in 1959 but they certainly do now and have honed their capacity for crudity in the intervening years.

This is a provocative and intelligent play as the blurbs told us and embarrassingly real with it. They may be Americans but we know what’s happening to them and what they are up to.

There is an uneasy but not wasted irony that the black American parts are played by Maori actors. Nancy Brunning as Francine and particularly as Lena subtly and cruelly drives up the significance of all that happens around her with little more than a raised eyebrow and exquisite timing.

The set crosses the whole broad expanse of the theatre and has an awkward and pointless midstage step. No shift was ever as tidy as this 1959 one. The boxes make for excellent buffoonery business but more of them and bigger ones and more piles of household goods still to be packed would have better evoked the stress of house moving and at the same time filled some of that huge wide-stage emptiness. By 2009 the demolition-ready house is more convincing and the stacking plastic chairs are perfect.

There is lots of good stuff for the actors in this play and they do a good job but the production lacks pace and movement and it doesn’t take up the potential for fireworks. It lines up nervously where there could be choreographed carelessness and the turn-taking gaps in the dialogue were not meaningful.

It will be interesting to hear the gossip around Wellington about this play. Some of it might be enragingly bigoted and some cringingly self-satisfied but there will also be some retelling of the very naughty jokes and that will be fun.


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