The Clean House introduces us to a household belonging to a married couple Lane (Mary-Anne Halpin) and Charles (James Bean), both successful doctors. In the house is a Brazilian house cleaner, Matilde (Keila Terencio) who, in a depressive state, can no longer clean. Lane’s sister, Virginia (Alice Livingstone) arrives and offers to do just that – clean house! Enter an Argentinian, Ana (Colleen Cook), a patient of Charles’s. Charles and Ana have discovered that are each other’s soul mate, and Lane’s emotional life is further disrupted. So, both the literal house and the emotional house of Lane need a clean!
The play begins with the direct telling of a joke by Matilde in Portuguese. Its is not translated, but we get its gist. The play finishes two hours later with Matilde summarising what has transpired by telling us, once again, directly, that “I think heaven is a kind of sea of untranslatable jokes, except everyone is laughing.”
In that two hour journey we have watched feuding sisters, infidelity, depression, heartbreak, cancer, a fruitless search for a cure, even to the world’s ends – in this case Alaska – and death. But, what is wonderful is that Ms Ruhl contrives to tell it with a breezy humour and tender lightness of touch. Like Anton Chekhov, Ms Ruhl views life as an unavoidable comedy: characters, story, are all inevitabilities that are nothing that has not happened before, so one may as well take a profounder view and see the ‘joke’ that our conscious awareness of our lived travails can give us, and rather than angst rending, encourage us to die ‘laughing’. Life can be a ‘comedy’ if it is imbued with love. We’re all in it together. None of it makes any sense – let’s have a laugh.
The company of actors under the direction of Rosane McNamara find the rhythm and delicacy of the authorial tone with a direct simplicity and pertness. Ms Terencio, has the playful personality to quickly engage us in Matilde’s ‘game’ as Mistress of Ceremonies as well as play personality, and each of the other actors capture the defining differences of their responsibilities with expert ease and can be compared and contrasted by us with an alert sense of conspiratorial delight that makes the events of the play easily digested as a comic moral fable for a way of living in the complicated modern world.
The playful writing formulas which Ms Ruhl explores, in The Clean House, are always surprisingly fresh and are a simple and ‘fun’ cause for arresting our attention to surrender our belief in the where and how she tells her story, and is a justification, alone, for its nomination for the Playwriting Pulitzer Prize in 2004 – our Australian writers ought to look at this work as an encouragement for boldness beyond the usual choices of construction. It has a supreme confidence in its sense of all its considered rightness.
The set and lighting design, by David Marshall-Martin, and the costume design by Nicola Block, sustains with a visual confidence the play’s playfulness and clean line construction, while the intricate and adventurous sound design by Tegan Nichols, escorts us intelligently through the ups and downs, whimsy and melodrama of the play’s telling in a very sophisticated manner.
The Clean House is a delightful, wise experience. I recommend it with few reservations. The New Theatre seems to be having a very good artistic year.
Company: New Theatre
Venue: New Theatre, Newtown, Sydney
Dates: 6 June – 8 July 2017
For more of Kevin Jackson’s theatre reviews, check out his blog at Kevin Jackson’s Theatre Diary
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Australia Day (New Theatre) – theatre review
- Good Cook. Friendly. Clean. (Griffin) – theatre review
- My Night with Reg (New Theatre) – theatre review
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television