Review: Clybourne Park (Ensemble Theatre)

clybourneparkVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Mar 13 – Apr 19, 2014
Playwright: Bruce Norris
Director: Tanya Goldberg
Actors: Paula Arundell, Thomas Campbell, Briallen Clarke, Nathan Lovejoy, Wendy Strehlow, Richard Sydenham, Cleave Williams

Theatre review
Bruce Norris’ multi-award winning play is a stunning work about racism and its manifestations in American neighbourhoods. By looking at the formation of communities and the process of home acquisition over the last 50 years, Norris captures the evolution of attitudes regarding ethnic diversity and political correctness in the USA. It is a script that is dynamic, entertaining and funny, while maintaining a complexity that reflects the intricately divergent beliefs we hold on the subject. We all accept that racism is not to be tolerated, but it is our individual and differing definitions of the concept that gives Clybourne Park its dramatic exuberance.

Direction by Tanya Goldberg for this production by the Ensemble Theatre is exciting and impressive. Goldberg’s work is full of intellectual depth but also gleefully entertaining. She relishes in the dark and sometimes sardonic humour of the script, making us laugh at every opportunity but always keeping us aware of the precariousness of the topics being discussed. We are never sure if our laughter is appropriate, and we are constantly required to assess the political correctness of our responses to what unfolds on stage. Goldberg’s achievement in creating an electric piece of theatre, while presenting some of the bravest and most contentious points of view on race, is truly remarkable.

This cast of seven is magnificent. Each player takes on two roles (except Thomas Campbell who adds an extra one at the end), and every character we see is thoroughly explored and colourfully executed. The chemistry between all is playful and powerful. It is quite incredible to see a stage full of infallible actors with so much confidence and surety in their undertaking. Nathan Lovejoy’s impeccable timing is showcased well without his comic abilities overwhelming the deeper meanings being communicated. Several scenes involving Lovejoy’s characters speaking with varying degrees of offensiveness are delivered with a poignant irony that is dangerous and delicious. Briallen Clarke is animated and vivacious, with a natural ability at commanding attention. She is a charming and funny actor who creates endearing characters effortlessly. Richard Sydenham brings charisma and gravity to his roles. The dramatic tension he creates as Russ is absolutely enthralling theatre. Paula Arundell has two very different roles but introduces the same amount of passion into both. Her dignified performance in Act 1 transforms into something more unexpected and complex in the second half. Her characters are interesting and challenging, giving the play a sense of daring edginess.

There are things in life that are difficult to articulate due to the many valid yet conflicting perspectives that apply. Politics is distilled by the media into simple, black and white sound bites, and our minds and thoughts are shaped accordingly. Clybourne Park is a reminder that our world is infinitely large, and perpetually evolving. In our navigation through different lives and communities, rules and social norms are constantly in flux. Our minds need to always be developing because nothing ever stays the same, least of all the sensitive needs of human beings.