Clybourne Park, Feb.19th, ’11

london west end

It was announced as a hilarious comedy, but I perceived it in a different way – yes, it is funny, with loads of snide side remarks that were quite hilarious, but it is also a very intense drama, its dialogues very tense and sharp, painfully witty rather than haha-funny. It is also a play that shows how little has changed within 50 years and it’s then that it changes from comedy to stark drama.

Clybourne Park is the name of a house set in a typical American all-white suburb in the fifties. The owners Russ and Bev (Stuart McQuarrie and the brilliant Sophie Thompson – that family certainly has the theatre gene inherited at birth – she’s Emma Thompson’s sister) are giving up their house in the cosy neighbourhood to live closer to Russ’ workplace. But in truth this is just a white lie – they leave to rid themselves of their grief and their guilt. Their only son Kenneth (Michael Goldsmith) came home from Vietnam a destroyed soul. After having had to kill to survive he is no longer able to cope with his life in the suburbs. He kills himself – not in a desperate moment of mindlessness, but after a lot of thought and well planned and alone as noone was able to detect the post war trauma and depression he was suffering from. It is the late fifties, after all, and PTSS wasn’t recognised as a diagnose at all.

And so Russ, who has withdrawn into himself after his son committed suicide, and Bev, constantly talking to fill the emptiness of her heart, her life, sell their home at a “knock-down” price – and therefore to the first black couple ever to live in the rather posh neighbourhood that had only seen black servants till then. No surprise that every neighbour shows up on their doorstep to prevent the unthinkable from happening. Very friendly at first they try to talk Russ and Bev out of their plan to move. When reasoning doesn’t work, everyone displays their own prejudices, their own stingy little hate filled quibs, uttered in the selfrighteous way people adopt when everybody around them has the same opinions. And then Russ quietly collects a large locked military box from the basement. As if the wooden box was holding all the rage and desperation of its former owner everybody in the room becomes more and more hostile till Russ finally buries the thing under a large tree in their garden.

50 years later Lena and Kevin (Lorna Brown and Lucian Msamati) have inherited the house from Lena’s great aunt who had worked in the house as a maid. They try to sell it to a white couple who sees the place as an investment in an upcoming and revitalised part of town that for years had been more or less derelict. As the house has been left to decay they plan to tear it down and build something new. And now it is the black couple who argues their case of protecting the neighbourhood from new architectorial influences as this house is – as derelict as it may be – a piece of the black history of the town. It was, after all, the first house black people bought in a white neighbourhood…

The arguments haven’t changed, the prejudices are still the same – no matter if uttered by white or black people – it is the same vicious circle of non-understanding people are ensnared in. And there doesn’t seem to be a way out.

When the builders who are already tearing old pipes out in the garden, find an old military box, the arguments inside the tattered old house get more and more hostile and violent.

When finally one of the workmen breaks the old lock, he finds a letter sealed away – the last words of  a young man mourning his inner peace and his soul he lost in a pointless, meaningless war. A statement, a desperate plea for understanding, so filled with his rage against this war and his hopelessness that it still seemed to hold a powerful grip on anyone who dared coming close enough.

And while Kenneth had been broken by a war that wasn’t his war, all the inhabitants of Clybourne Park since his suicide had been broken by their misconception of their world.

It’s a brilliant play, with a brilliant brilliant cast and a very compelling and raw ending. The last scene certainly left the audience – and me – stunned and thinking. Great Theatre Indeed!!!

 

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