Three women sitting on a perfectly white sofa lie at the heart of Sarah Ruhl’s ‘The Clean House.’ This play from 2004 is a dazzling, and at times fantastical, jigsaw of characters we half recognise from our own lives.
There’s the happily married Lane who certainly didn’t go to medical school in order to end up cleaning her own house. That’s why she employed Matilde. But Matilde comes from Brazil and confides to us that she dislikes cleaning and likes dust. What matters more to her is the search for the funniest joke in the world. When she finds it someone might die laughing. Literally. Sitting alongside them is Lane’s sister, Victoria, whose manic passion for making things clean is her life’s project.
So Victoria strikes a secret deal with Matilde: ‘I’ll clean and you write jokes.’
This play disrupts expectations. It’s not a comedy. Its not quite farce. It draws on comedia del’arte infused with magical realism. Simultaneous action takes place on different parts of the stage. The characters talk to themselves, or to each other, in different locations and across diverse time periods. The tight musical score and the dappled lighting make the supernatural feel natural.
The play doesn’t stay domestic or urban. It tackles love and death and drives us to the ice packs of Alaska.
Lane discovers her husband Charles, also a surgeon, has gone off with an older woman called Ana who has cancer. Is she pretty? No, she’s beautiful. How did they meet? When her husband had an epiphany performing a mastectomy.
Sam Chittenden, has been building a reputation for directing plays that are both serious and surreal – and being able to take the audience with her. She was attracted to ‘Clean House’ because it had ‘a strong female cast’ and was ‘a joy to read.’
We agree with Sam that it ‘plays to the strengths of theatre’ with a strong story and ‘a bit of the fantastic – a very beautiful play with joy and sadness.’
This New Venture Theatre production, involving a team of nearly 30 people, demonstrates the quality of the local drama scene and has been entered into the Brighton and Hove drama awards. With theatre like this why risk a Southern Train to London?
Words: Mike Aiken. Photos: Strat Mastoris
‘The Clean House’ was produced at the New Venture Theatre, Bedford Place, 4th – 12th November 2016.