Review: The Clean House (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Jun 6 – Jul 8, 2017
Playwright: Sarah Ruhl
Director: Rosane McNamara
Cast: James Bean, Colleen Cook, Mary-Anne Halpin, Alice Livingstone, Keila Terencio
Image © Bob Seary

Theatre review
In Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House, sisters Lane and Virginia are exemplary women who spend their days obsessing over having to do the right thing. One pursues a fabulous career in medicine, and the other indulges in an irresistible urge to clean houses. Both live in accordance with values our societies deem admirable and righteous, but neither are rewarded with enduring happiness. In fact, the only incidents of true elation in the play, are accompanied with certain death.

The perpetual state of tension between order and chaos, is a succinct way of describing all of human existence. In our desire to put things into structures of subjective logic, we come into conflict with nature, or a conception of nature, that is separate and external to the supreme beings we think ourselves to be. It seems we are the only creations of Mother Earth that insist on agendas that run contrary to the will of all else that makes up the universe.

Ruhl’s magical realism has a feeling of unassuming banality, delivered through its unmitigated look at our relationship with domesticity, yet its imaginative explorations into the often overlooked quirks of simply being, turn the everyday into something endlessly fascinating. The greatest purpose of art, is that it can re-contextualise humanity, so that the unseen is made visible, in order that we may gain new knowledge of the infinitely mysterious self. The Clean House places us firmly inside normalcy, and then reveals what lies beyond its superficial veneers.

The writing is gloriously funny, and under Rosane McNamara’s direction, Ruhl’s humour, along with an undeniable poignancy, are given full illumination. Rich with meaning and amusement, the play is captivating, thoroughly inquisitorial, and McNamara’s subtle approach with its messaging, keeps us keenly intrigued.

The actors tell the story with excellent clarity and conviction, but performance rhythms require finessing for their presentation to communicate at a tighter pace. The impressive Dr Lane is played by Mary-Anne Halpin, focused and decisive with motivations, but slightly lacking in complexity with the interpretations brought to her character. Alice Livingstone is delightful as the decidedly sad Virginia, outstandingly acerbic, and scintillating with irony. The cleaning lady, and aspiring comedian, Matilde is a vivacious presence in Keila Terencio, who delivers impressive theatrical energy, and a powerful sense of purity essential to the work’s ideology.

The personalities in The Clean House are shown for their flaws, but we know that these people cannot help themselves. We can try, and we should try, to be better people, but there is nothing that can turn us invincible. Feelings will be hurt, mistakes will be made, no matter how much we dream up safeguards and assurances. We make it a habit to act as though we are the sole determinants of fate, but there is no certainty to be found in how life wishes to pan itself out. There is however, tremendous satisfaction to be had in the experience of kindness, as we see at the show’s end, and the way acts of compassion are always able to defy regret, is one comfort we can hold on to.