Almost 30 years after it was first performed by the Joint Stock Theatre Group, Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine has lost none of its satirical power and social relevance. The audacity of Churchill's vision makes it a minefield for any director, but Thea Sharrock treads her way artfully through it. In this drama about the politics of sexuality in the post-colonial, post-Victorian era Churchill plays with gender roles and behaviour and the cross-dressing in the play is the perfect vehicle for its expression. It provides opportunity for hilarity, but, typically, there is a distinctive, serious sub-plot.
The play opens with a song, vaingloriously mocking Queen, Empire and the British way of life. A family of colonialists is in charge of a settlement, somewhere in Africa. The patriarchal, militaristic figure, played enigmatically by James Fleet, married to Betty, is "father" to the natives, and leads his family in song. This ditty is full of meaning; the flying of the flag, the positioning of the houseboy to the side and rear of stage. Betty's repressed sexuality, as she struggles to conform to expectations, is represented by the fact that she is played by a man. In act two, having left her husband and moved to England, the part is taken up by a woman, signifying her partial liberation and her struggle to reinvent herself.
In act one, a young boy, groomed to become a man in the spitting-image of his father, is played by a female actor. His interest in dolls and his inability to play "catch" are sources of shame and ridicule, while his friendship with the dashing adventurer, Harry Bagley, is dangerously, and misguidedly, encouraged. It tells the whole story of how beneath the attempts of this lad to conform to what is demanded of him in society lies another, quite different persona struggling against its natural inclinations.
In the second act (in a distortion of time set in modern-day Britain, though the characters have aged only two decades), the legacy of the colonial-Victorian ethos, in this less-regimented society, is one of total confusion, but, arguably, there is an atmosphere of ill-defined optimism.
Churchill's technique of doubling roles in performance is used to extraordinary effect under Thea Sharrock. All the cast, Nicola Walker in particular, as the young Edward in act one and as Betty in act two, give powerful performances. Churchill's ability to highlight abominations in a non-judgemental, permissive way, leaving judgement to the audience, rather than prescribing answers, creates scope for both hope and hilarity. A fabulous theatrical production.
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