The first play Dominic Cooke directed after taking on the top job at the Royal Court was a 2007 production of Chicago-based playwright Bruce Norris’s The Pain and the Itch, a taut if over-polished examination of the urban American middle class with a streak of cruelty running through it. Cooke’s production of Clybourne Park, also by Norris, was one of the most universally acclaimed productions of last year and it makes the inevitable leap into the West End with Stephen Campbell Moore and Stuart McQuarrie stepping into roles originally played by Martin Freeman and Steffan Rhodri.
The play, in part inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, is divided into two very distinct halves. The first half is set in 1959 and focuses on a married couple, Russ and Bev, who are in the process of moving out of their Chicago home following a family tragedy. Their possessions are packed into the boxes; they are ready to move on, to start anew. But then their neighbour Karl and his heavily pregnant deaf wife arrive to inform them that the family who are hoping to buy their home is African American. Initially he skirts around the issue, citing worries about property values, but the true nature of his objections become increasingly clear. His persistence eventually makes the taciturn Russ explode and reveal the full extent of his anger at the way he feels the community has treated his family and his son, a veteran of the Korean war.
The second half of the play takes place in the present day, in the same house, now damp-ridden and flaking, a place out of time. A young couple, Steve and Lindsey, the new owners, are embroiled in a meeting with the local residents’ committee about the improvements they plan for the property. In the intervening years it’s clear that the racial dynamics of the neighbourhood have changed significantly and the couple seem quietly – and then not so quietly – proud of the fact that they are willing to move to the area and raise their family there.
Over the course of a muggy Chicago afternoon, the veneer of civility is peeled away and the tone of the meeting becomes increasingly volatile, concluding with a kind of sparring, the weaponry verbal, which culminates in a series of jokes that cut ever closer to the bone. The play poses the question of whether this hostility is to do with a sense of preservation – because the couple want to tear down the house and rebuild it, to sweep aside the past – or whether it’s just a mirroring of the unease exhibited by earlier generations.
Norris is adept at feeding his audience information, about holding things back until just the right moment. The loss that Russ and Bev have suffered is hinted at but only really comes to light in the confrontation with Karl. The second section is an equally polished exercise in pacing and parcelling, in the choreography of tension, in the slow build, with each poorly judged joke drawing its share of winces and gasps from the audience.
As with The Pain and the Itch, there’s something cold in the play’s calculation. Norris shows a clear understanding of the complexity of racial prejudice, but he also uses a deaf character as a way of diffusing the tension, as the butt of jokes. One waits for her to be used in a more meaningful way, but this never comes; she’s used as a tool to give shading to the character of Karl, but is denied a voice of her own. Norris also chooses to put the most charged – in this context at least – joke of all, one that features both an allusion to menstruation and the word ‘cunt,’ in the mouth of black woman, which has the desired effect of making it even more unpleasant. It’s an act designed to trigger a reaction, a collective gasp, and it succeeds. In these instances there’s something hard-eyed about the play, which its subtler passages can’t quite make up for; a brief final scene also feels somewhat tacked on and is oddly lacking in emotional clout.
Of the cast McQuarrie stands out, conveying a real sense of a man carrying something corrosive within himself and his blow-up, when it inevitably comes, is suitably ferocious, a raw un-corking of rage and pain, a violent spilling over. Though her performance seems intended to counter his quietness, Sophie Thompson often resorts to shrillness and exaggeration as his wife Bev while Stephen Campbell Moore seems initially ill at ease as the blue-blazered Karl and only really relaxes in the contemporary scenes, but this is can perhaps be ascribed to the fact that he was cast relatively late in the day as a replacement for Jason Watkins.
Norris’s play is smart and barbed; it’s very funny in places and is clearly capable of touching a nerve with audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, but there’s something insidious about it too, in its certainty of what lies hidden within everyone and in the evident pleasure it takes in picking those surface layers away.