A MODERN MASTERPIECE
This is that finely balanced thing: a comedy built around a tragedy. Six summers ago, a newfledged critic for the Times, I wrote about its British premiere: “Bruce Norris’ play is billed as a satire on race and property in America, in 1959 and then the present day, but it reaches wider. Norris is in fact occupying territory somewhere between Arthur Miller and vintage Ayckbourn, and holding it triumphantly.”
His central idea is the observation that inner-suburban areas which once were all-white, dreading a black influx, find themselves fifty years later dominated by a black community and at at risk of a gentrifying invasion of white people drawn by promiximity to “downtown”… which might ring some bells in our cities. We first meet the ‘50s couple, covering the deep pain of a two-year-old tragedy with banal banter, and finally succumbing to rage or tears in dispute with a pastor and a frightful neighbour who is horrified at their selling to a black family. In Act 2 we meet the 2009 moderns, locked in fraught debate as the white incomers plan to rebuild the same house bigger, and the black locals (upwardly mobile now but descended from the ‘50s incomers) civilly disguise their contempt.
The Court’s version went to the West End, but has pretty much vanished from our canon of modern classics since. So cheer for Daniel Buckroyd of the Colchester Mercury, whose elegant and thoughtful productions tour the land (link below) and redress the howling injustice of Londoners getting all the fun. I only wish that the tour was heading into more towns where, as in Norris’ imagined neighbourhood, there are mingled sensitivities about both house prices and race. Or, as Bev and Russ in Act 1 would say , the matter of “coloureds” – until Jim the dreadful patron1zing vicar says piously ” don’t we say Negro now?”
The slyness of Norris’ brilliant text mines awkwardnesses like that, in both the 1959 and 2009 acts. Hypocrisy, deep worried prejudice and self- interested alarm contort language and betray themselves. I had remembered the magnificently shocking second act in which the moderns are constantly on their mobiles, debate hopelessly, and manage, one after another, to offend one another (on race, gayness, feminism, patriotism, disability, rape, vulgarity, you name it). You hear the actual gasps before the laughs: even at the show I saw, a last matinee on a quiet day in Colchester,
Buckroyd’s cast are tremendous: Mark Womack particularly as the enduring, suffering Russ in the first act, and Gloria Onitiri deploying – as the black ‘50s maid and the successful modern woman – first dignity, and then venomous, brittle killer timing. Another shout for Ben Deery’s infuriating malicious geek Karl in the first half; but they are all great, perfect casting and solidly at ease as an ensemble.
What I had forgotten about is Norris’ satisfying, sly mystifications: you only gradually see what is happening in both acts. The first begins in deliberately banal uncomical chat between the 1959 couple, the second in a committee whose purpose one cannot quite grasp. But clarity grows, and the growing interweaving of themes, remarks, and character traits between the two disparate acts is masterful. Nor does Norris fall into the trap of exaggerating the similarities of then and now: the second Act is not a mirror image of naive 1959 racism, but a tricky modern swamp of hypocrisy, awkward liberalism and lurking unsayables.
And the tragedy stays at the heart of it. We come poignantly full circle to a final haunting, and a reminder that next to real loves and griefs , all offence is trivial. Brilliant.
Richmond Theatre to 30 APril, http://www.atgtickets.com/richmond
then touring Guildford, Cambridge, Oxford, Theatr Clwyd.