Way before the tub-thumping zeitgeist of Steve Bannon came William F Buckley, an American conservative author and commentator who founded the National Review magazine. ‘Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views,’ he said.
Contradicting this assessment is Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, where American property and racial tensions run high. Intriguingly, it is despicably funny, one of those rare pieces which makes you burst unrestrainedly out laughing, only to be shocked a second later when the implication of the humour hits you, making you question your own liberal sensibilities. It rides rough-shod over politically correct piousness, revealing sadly that racism is very much an issue, even though many middle-class people would regard it as an inconvenient truth. What makes this more forlorn is that it was written pre-Trump, so espousing inherent prejudice is not as censored or underlying as maybe the play portrays. Clybourne Park is as sharp as it is incendiary, with a chiselled balance of emotional insight, anguish and gutsy satire.
If you look at any top ten list of American plays of the 20th century, the 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun always features, although it is barely heard of over here. In that play, the matriarch of the African-American Younger family purchases a house in the white Clybourne Park locality of Chicago. Clybourne Park is set in that house, and in the first act the white family living there is called on by local interferer, Karl Lindner, who also turns up in Raisin, with the same intention: to stop the Younger family from moving in.
The first twenty minutes or so of the first-night performance was hampered by an inhibiting deliberateness in the acting and instability in some of the accents. The script requires a sleek naturalness, an over and undercutting which relies essentially on the impulsive reaction rather than a considered delivery. This misfiring made the pace somewhat mundane. It was picked up due to the deftness of Toby Constad as the previously mentioned Karl and Zara Paige as Bev, whose performances epitomise an idyll of bygone, mid-20th-century Americana; the former displays more than a passing resemblance to George McFly.
Over the next few decades, the neighbourhood becomes a black vicinity, which is the starting point for act 2. Set in the present day and ushering forward the present-day anachronism of gentrification. When an affluent white couple acquires the house with a plan to renovate, their black neighbours, sympathetic to the significant disposition of the house and area, try to change their minds. Performances in this second half are excellent, particularly from Yvonne Grundy as Lena, Fola Adeyoola as Kevin and Sorcha Martin as Lindsey. The delivery of the white women and tampons joke was a barbed wire soufflé of delicious venom, beautifully delivered and cripplingly cutting. The only issue is the issues. This half becomes very much issues-driven and – as in the recent Jez Butterworth play, The Ferryman – when issues are the predominant motivating factor for the action, the characters can become an afterthought. This is by no means a fault of the production, merely a comment on the play.
Clybourne Park will be playing at the Arts University Bournemouth up to and including 11 November with a rotating cast. As far as young talent is concerned, it is well worth a watch.