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Closer to Clybourne in Paris

By • West End
It's odd how there are no production pictures outside the Wyndham's Theatre to coincide with the transfer there of Bruce Norris's Clybourne Park. I commented on this to Kate Horton, the executive director at the Royal Court where the play opened last year, as we stood on the pavement.

Momentarily taken aback, she rallied instantly to provide the perfect Royal Court answer: "Well, the play's the thing, isn't it?" Which implies, of course, that actors are mere conduits rather than equal partners in the enterprise.

Still, despite all its plaudits and awards and nominations, I would have thought Clybourne Park -- the title is meaningless in London -- needed every bit of self-publicising push that it can manage. The first night was thick with the smell of transatlantic money and producer power, and the audience greeted the play like an old friend.

Although I thought Posh by Laura Wade was the better of the two outstanding Court plays last year (with Roy Williams's Sucker Punch way behind in third place), I loved the unexpectedness and the abrasion of Clybourne Park, the way it says the unsayable in proper dramatic contexts and takes a big risk with form.

But despite the excellence of the performances -- Stuart McQuarrie is an improvement on the Court original, while Stephen Campbell Moore, so brilliant in All My Sons last year, has taken the edge off the Martin Freeman roles -- I found myself not so impressed.

As I confess in my review, it's not always a good idea to see something twice. And I'm still reeling from seeing Celestial Harmonies in Paris last weekend.

Also in Paris, I saw a play that would appeal to Dominic Cooke's taste for the edgy and unexpected at the Court, but suspect it might be best suited to Steve Marmion's programme at the Soho Theatre. This was This Is My Father by Ilay den Boer, in which a real life Dutch father and son act out their differences, using instant translation as a dramatic weapon, over a campaign of anti-semitism in the soccer locker room.

Ilay and his dad, Gert den Boer, improvise the opening skirmishes to such an infuriating extent that audience members in Bobigny -- a blessedly unsophisticated crowd -- starting joining in the conversation, then answering back, then heckling and, in some cases, storming out.

"We've done fifty-four performances of this play, and never had such a reaction," said Ilay on stage, getting angrier. One vociferous woman's complaint was that this was not "une spectacle," which reminds me of the old woman complaining about Eugene O'Neill as she left the theatre: "That was more of a play than a show, I guess."

But before too long the irate woman had her complaint thrust unceremoniously back down her throat as the piece careered mercilessly into an exposition of the son's disagreement with his father -- Ilay is Jewish (like his mother), his father, not -- a ferocious account of a showdown with the anti-semites, and the transformation of the stage into a scenic riot of Dutch football fascism on the terraces of the club they both love, Feyenoord (much more of a problem there than it is here; the Jewish fans at Spurs chant their own anti-semitism --- "Yiddo, yiddo" -- which I suppose makes it all right) while Ilay, a champion schoolboy goalkeeper, stands naked, and proudly uncircumcised, before his own father, and us.

Father and son have learned to live with their differences, but it makes for an uneasy hour and a half's viewing, as Ilay, speaking in Dutch, badgers and bullies his father with the litanical command of "translate" (into French in Bobigny, but he could just as easily do so into English).

This Is My Father is an unusual, unsettling and deeply moving play -- though "play" is not quite the right word -- and all the more so, of course, for having the reality factor of an utterly authentic documentary, as well as a nervy "can this really be happening" element.

Clybourne Park went off like a bomb in Sloane Square. So did This Is My Father in Bobigny. This is to do with the conflict of expectation in the audience. The trouble with Clybourne Park now is there is no suprise element. I hope we soon get the chance to see if the same might apply to This Is My Father.


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