Tag Archives: Liberalism

“Detroit” by Lisa D’Amour

at the Cottesloe Theatre, Wednesday 11th July 2012

Life in suburbia is something many of us have had experience of, and contains within it a conflict (most notably tha between the city and the country) which makes it perfect for theatrical presentation. In Detroit, Lisa D’Amour presents a searing satire on modern life in the suburbs and produces some laugh-your-head-off moments, but the overall narrative doesn’t seem to support the final ten minutes and much of the time it feels like Clybourne Park without the race issues.

Sharon and Kenny have just moved in opposite (at least I think opposite, the staging is a little confused) Ben and Mary, who are a little bemused by how “weird” their new neighbours are. They bond over some farcical mishaps, however, before Sharon and Kenny tempt Ben and Mary into “starting again”, like them. The play finishes with the two hippies wreaking destruction (*spoiler alert* they burn the house down) and scarpering, after which Frank arrives on the scene to explain the history of the community and the aspirations of the developers (“to start a conversation”, which clearly never happened).

It’s clear that these final few speeches of Frank’s are intended to support and tie up the rest of the play, but unfortunately D’Amour does not probe deeply enough or ask enough questions to make this obvious. The narrative is altogether too thin to support this argument and it becomes less of a critique of suburbia than an indictment of middle-class values and hypocrisy.

All this, however, is negligible compared to the pure wit of the piece. D’Amour paints a picture of these people to stunning accuracy and the dialogue remains a constant stream of jokes which hit the audience with wave after wave of uncontrollable laughter. Sharon talks about her bafflement at the “new internet” and Ben participates in an online community called “BritLand” where he is known as “Ian”. And for all their talking, these characters rarely have genuine conversations which amount to anything important. They are all so out-of-touch and self-absorbed that to do so is unthinkable.

Austin Pendleton (of Steppenwolf fame, who produced the premiere of the play in America) directs his five-strong cast brilliantly, teasing out nuanced and truthful performances. Will Adamsdale and Clare Dunne as Kenny and Sharon maintain an adolescent nonchalance and never seem menacing, even though their final act aligns them somewhat with symbolism of the devil. Stuart McQuarrie and Justine Mitchell initially seem their polar opposites, the former being a banker by trade and the latter supremely conscientious, but after time it’s clear they are merely Kenny and Sharon later on in life and with more money.

Kevin Depinet’s simple set allows the words to take centre stage, with the contrasting facades of the house looming over the action. Mark Henderson’s lighting shows the changing times of day without being overbearing and Anthony Capel and Matthew Scott’s music becomes integral to the plot in later scenes. Under Pendleton’s direction, Detroit is a comedy first and foremost and a social comment second, and though a deeper questioning of suburban life would have been welcome, D’Amour is shown here to be a master of comedy.

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“Clybourne Park” by Bruce Norris

at the Royal Court Theatre, Friday 27th August 2010

We often see ourselves as superior to those who have gone before us for being far more open and accepting when it comes to issues of race. Bruce Norris’ wildly funny Clybourne Park forces us to reconsider this mindset and asks us to look at how racist we really are. Dominic Cooke’s production at the Royal Court in its UK premiere leaves us questioning through our laughter why we are not all as morally superior we think we are.

Norris’ play, written as a response to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin In The Sun, is split clearly in two parts, the first being set in 1959 and the second in 2009 in one house on Clybourne Street, Chicago. In the first half, structured much like a mid-century farce, Russ and Bev (Steffan Rhodri and Sophie Thompson) are in the process of moving out to make way for a young black family. For reasons unknown the house has sold below its market value, leaving many neighbours unhappy. In the second half a young white couple plan to move into and renovate the same house fifty years later and are faced with similar issues. Links are made between families in each time period, thus allowing us to realise that through others both scenarios could be happening simultaneously, even though they are half a century apart (Wibbly-Wobbly-Timey-Wimey).

Although there is a difference of half a century between the two acts, many themes remain constant, thus examining our inability to change. Along with racial stigma, Norris also shows how failure to talk openly about issues of race, gender and painful memories can be violently destructive. In the second half Steve (Martin Freeman) exposes how the word “offense” has become meaningless in the 21st century as political correctness takes hold, a subject also briefly touched upon in 1959.

While these themes are obvious, Norris’ attempt to consider the ghosts of memory in properties falls somewhat flat. We know that no one wishes to live in houses which are associated with death (for proof we need only look to the patch of grass which now grows where Myra Hindley and Ian Brady once lived), but in Clybourne Park this theme is not approached with enough debate. The interesting material which is there is overshadowed by the comedy and other themes surrounding it.

Robert Innes-Hopkins’ design depicts the same house in two strikingly different states either side of the interval. The early version has a lived in but unloved feel, and the second, although with exactly the same layout and fragments of the same wallpaper, is entirely cold and bereft of life, going hand in hand with Paul Constable’s vivid lighting.

Dominic Cooke directs the small ensemble with care, making sure to make each character unique without turning them into charicatures. The same cast performs in each half, and most have their former parts contrasted in the latter. Steffan Rhodri, for example, broods throughout act one as the formidable Russ but is quite altered as the casual builder Dan later in the evening. Martin Freeman is intelligent and eloquent as the modern-day Steve but backward and jumpy as Karl in the fifties. Sarah Goldberg and Lucien Msamati are also impressive and Sophie Thompson, although at times somewhat too melodramatic as Bev, redeems herself in the role of the self-centred lawyer Kathy.

Clybourne Park’s structure means that each part in fact stands alone as a witty take on differences in society. It is together, however, that the different scenes hold power and clever references to the other in each serve to reinforce our understanding. Norris does tackle difficult issues, but in a way which forces us to laugh. Comedy of the year? It could well be.