Saturday, 5 March 2011
Racism, Frankie Boyle and Clybourne Park
Clybourne Park is a play of ideas but don’t let that put you off. This play is laugh out loud, scurrilously funny. But it is much more than a sophisticated sitcom or stand up routine. In the audience’s laughter our own positions and prejudices are revealed and reflected back to us. This is theatre that is highly entertaining and provocative.
The acting in Dominic Cooke's production is of the highest quality capturing the subtlest inflections of human nature, the camouflaged cruelties incubating in our relationships. The actors (and all of them contribute to the success of this production) flesh from Bruce Norris’s text, characters that are at once, theatrical (and so provide an audience with a critical distance with which to scrutinise their behaviour), and, at the same time, immediately recognisable as one of us (thus, shrinking any distance and mirroring all that we flinch from in ourselves). All the lazy dualisms of goodies and baddies, the virtuous and vicious evaporate and all the ambivalent, moral and psychological chiaroscuro in which the human person is shaped becomes solid.
This two act play runs like a perfectly calibrated Swiss watch. Set in two separate historical periods inhabited by different characters, the acts reference each other and show how the fears and anxieties of one age remain stubbornly alive in another. The buying and selling of property becomes the locus for the unspoken grievances, political and personal, that cross historical and cultural time zones. Yet, this is no crude piece of political agitprop. Instead, ideological positions are rooted in the shifting silt of human tragedy and loss that lies within us. Nevertheless, Clybourne Park is a play of fascinating ideas.
In a liberal, permissive society what, the play asks, can be classed as offensive? John Galliano’s anti-Semitic rants in a Parisian bar or the comedian, Frankie Boyle’s jokes at the expense of the disabled? Are certain things inherently offensive or is offense in the eye of the beholder? Bruce Norris uses the nature of humour to explore this. If you prefix every potentially offensive comment with a knowing wink and “it’s a joke” does that make it acceptable? Or does the degree of offense depend on how something is said, the context and by whom? Clybourne Park makes the point that the language that some black people may use among themselves would be considered unacceptable if used by white people.
Or, perhaps, there is some correlation between the gravity of the offense and the sensitivities of the listener? This struck me forcibly during the past week. I felt offended and insulted when someone made a comment about my height (or lack of it) and physical stature. Most of the time such comments never appear to land a blow (in fact, some of them are very funny and, if I may say so, they are usually the ones I make self-deprecatingly about myself), but at that particular moment the comment hurt. Hyper-sensitivity on my part or a real, verbal offense? Maybe the question is did the person who used the comment intend to belittle (excuse the pun) me and, if so, is that where the offense lies?
Clybourne Park considers all those things that make people outsiders. There are the obvious ones of race, gender, class, sexual orientation and religion that are constantly (and properly) brought to our attention. The current debate in the United Kingdom about multiculturalism highlights this. But Norris asks the more profound question: what are these “outsiders” placed outside of? Well, it may be that certain people or groups are placed outside the many rights (for example, to personal security) and freedoms (for example, to religious expression) that most people naturally benefit from. Such discrimination is unacceptable. But, it may also be that in this mortal life we all exist as outsiders, living outside the city walls, and the idea that there are insiders is just a powerful myth. Being an outsider is our commonality.
Grief, for example, makes us all outsiders, Norris suggests. In the first act, a couple grieve the death of their son and in turn, they become emotional pariahs in the community in which they live. The grieving, as the poet Christopher Reid writes, carry “an emptiness so heavy,/ I am inclined to call it my new born soul,/ though its state may be less an achieved pregnancy than a pregnancy/ lodged oddly, for lack of a womb, in a tight gap/ behind the sternum, mid-thorax, not far from my heart.” They bear the wound of loss that others cannot accept or recognise as being part of the human condition.
For all its ideas, Clybourne Park never forgets that we are made to live lives of praise and lamentation (either suppressed or in tears) and that it is in such expressions that we find our human identity and the possibility of reaching out to each other in tenderness. Apart from all the other things that there is to enjoy in this play, I think this sad-stirring element makes Clybourne Park a must-see.