With fast-biting dialogue and quasi-slapstick humour, Sydney Theatre Company’s revival of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine is full of kinetic energy, 38 years after its premiere. A satirical portrait of colonial Africa that shows how Western values stifle authentic expression, director Kip Williams invigorates his production’s contrasting two-act movement with radical, vibrant humour that presents a sharp challenge to heteronormative ideas of femininity.
Cloud Nine opens with an image of patriotic idealism, but all is not what it seems. Actors sing a triumphant rendition of a nationalist tune, ‘Come on and all for England!’. White men are left to occupy the frontal open verandah in Elizabeth Gadsby’s simple set. Women (and an African servant) remain singing inside a simple glass room: they are boxed in.
It’s the Victorian era, and the British Empire in Africa seems to be coming to an end. The first act tracks Clive (Josh McConville), a British administrator who is living with his family in Africa where the natives have begun to riot. When widow Mrs Saunders (Kate Box) and explorer Harry Bagley (Anthony Taufa) enter the household, all characters give into romantic temptations. They become entangled with each other’s passionate advances.
Churchill subverts conventional, historic ideas of men as authority figures and women as submissive. Here, the men are written to be played women, and women, men. Clive’s wife, Betty, is played by a man (Harry Greenwood), and his son, Edward, is played by a woman (Heather Mitchell). This reminds us that social constructs are just that: constructs. When Clive dismisses Betty’s activities as “delicate and sensitive” or scorns her “hysteria”, Greenwood’s exaggerated portrayal as a helpless woman is funny, but it’s also a comment on the obedient woman stereotype. Mitchell’s performance as Edward is tragic even while it’s hilarious; by highlighting the restrictive nature of masculinity, his childish, fist-clenching demeanour, and forbidden infatuation with his sister’s doll, is poignant in its naivete.
Joshua, an African servant is played by a white man (Matthew Backer) — but there’s no problematic blackface here. Rather, the casting highlights the way white societies have claimed supremacy over black identity and culture. Late in the first act, the consequences of this ‘colonisation’ is writ large and personal for our family; Joshua places a gun to his master’s head. Even now, this act of self-liberation and retaliation is radical, and Williams honours the moment with a prolonged silence, all thoughts of comedy forgotten.
While the first act demonstrated the ways the patriarchy crushes female agency, and messy consequences of ‘colonisation’, the second act allows its characters, especially the women, to come into their own. It’s set 100 years later, but its characters have only aged 25 years. Now refreshed and reset, we’re in mid-1970s contemporary England. Betty and Edward are re-cast along gender lines (Betty is now Heather Mitchell, Edward Harry Greenwood), and baby daughter Victoria has been upgraded from a china doll to Anita Heigh.
The second act lacks the comedic theatricality of the first act, steering away from cross-dressing and slapstick humour into realism. But this allows Churchill’s characters an opportunity to step away from a male-dominated space and come into their own. Clive is distinctly absent (Betty has left him), and we explore her newfound, late-in-life liberation. Edward is liberated too; it’s an easier time to be gay, and we track his newfound comfort in his own skin. Victoria is on her own journey, leaving her conventional married life to strike up a relationship with a woman (Kate Box). Rather than having to conceal their true selves in the farcical comedy of Act 1, the exemplary cast can now speak earnestly about the difficulties of coming to terms with their own identity. In one of the final scenes of the play, Betty discovers Edward’s sexual identity, and a vitalised understanding between mother and son blossoms — an event impossible in the world of the first act.
Kip Williams’ take on Cloud Nine functions like a series of vignettes; blackouts and an atmospheric score mark the transition between individual scenes. He is unafraid to stretch the playfulness of the text which revels in its comedy. But his production also manages to engage with the text’s ideas about social roles and identity. It’s a captivating mix. Williams finds nuance within Churchill’s rollicking fun; he seems acutely aware of the ways male-dominated society limits authentic expression for everyone, including men. Additionally, he strikes a clever balance between the play’s shifting tones: one minute, the production bursts with energetic wit, and the next, it asks quieter, more serious questions.
In its interrogation of social labels, Churchill’s Cloud Nine unveils the extensive possibilities of theatre as entertainment to shatter social norms and provoke change. The actors close the show with another musical number — ‘Cloud Nine’ — that reflects on their new place in this more modern world. This time, the song is hopeful.