It might have been written 38 years ago, but watching Cloud Nine in 2017 still feels like participating in a radical act of theatre. Written by Caryl Churchill (who also wrote STC’s 2015 hit Love and Information) and directed by Kip Williams, it’s a high-concept play bursting with challenges and provocations; a white-hot examination of Western society and its restrictions told through the intimate lens of one family.
We open in colonial Africa where Clive (Josh McConville), a high-ranking military official, has settled his family while he oversees the British occupation (think of those dads in beloved Victorian-era children’s books like A Little Princess and The Secret Garden). He and his pal Harry (Anthony Taufa) seem personally offended that the local population is resisting the Queen’s forces. His ‘boy’ Joshua (Matthew Backer), a black man, must endure racism and servitude inside the family compound even as, outside the walls, people who look just like him are slaughtered by people who look just like his master.
Clive’s wife Betty (Harry Greenwood in the first act) is bored and a little lost without the social structures of home, unsure of how to handle herself or her children. Her mother Maud (Anita Hegh) isn’t much help. Her son Edward (Heather Mitchell) is clearly gay, but that isn’t tolerated; every time he tries to hold his sister’s doll, it’s ripped from his hands. Ellen (Kate Box), the children’s nanny, is secretly pining for Betty; Mrs Saunders (also Box), a neighbour, wants to join the men. Ellen and Mrs Saunders are derided for their unorthodox decisions, but at least they seem able to make decisions – as opposed to Betty, who seems painfully adrift. It’s played for laughs – until it isn’t.
In the second act, the family splinters under the relatively progressive weight of 1970s modernity. The world has moved on a hundred years to 1975, and so has our family – though the characters have aged only about 25 years. The children are adults now, and the cross-casting from the first act shifts again. Betty (now Heather Mitchell, in an aching performance of tentative and eventually triumphant self-discovery) has left her husband and is beginning to figure out who she might be beyond a wife and a mother. Her son Edward (now Harry Greenwood) has been dumped by his boyfriend Gerry (Matthew Backer), who is uncomfortable with Edward’s feminine side. Edward finds refuge with his sister Victoria (in the first act a porcelain doll, here Anita Hegh), who feels a pull outside her own unhappy marriage and towards Lin (Kate Box), a working-class single mother to young Cathy (Josh McConville, satisfactorily dethroned from head of the family to the role of a dependant innocent).
Cloud Nine – the play and this production – explores what it means to be caught between the desire to participate in the world around us, and the urge to be our authentic selves, free of oppression. It asks us to consider the fact that our great feats of ‘civilisation’ not only sacrifice the worth of our women and children to exalt the existence of men, but have also been built on the graves of First Nations populations at home and worldwide. The Commonwealth has been flawed from the beginning, Cloud Nine says, so why do we still insist on upholding its conservative mores?
It’s an exceptional ensemble. Box, Greenwood, Hegh and Mitchell deliver blazing-bright performances, slowly expanding their definitions of the world to fully accept their own selves – but the whole cast brings energy and surprising sensitivity to the stage; this complicated, important story feels safe in their hands.
The first act’s cross-casting is a device to highlight oppression by casting oppressors in the role of the victims: a white man plays a black man; a white man plays a white woman; a white woman plays a gay boy. While this device initially seems a little too simple and straightforward to be effective, its reward delivers in time: in the second act, when the roles are cast according to their usual ‘type,’ the damage of the characters’ earlier lives begins to hit home. Late in the play, those pasts come back to haunt the characters in the present, and these moments are some of the best in Williams’ production: they are generously, unselfconsciously poignant; the kind of moment that might remind you of times you kept quiet to keep the peace, or were pressured into a choice – or a life – you did not want.
Modern, white-dominated capitalist societies like ours are built on the family unit and the various social and economic pressures that reinforce that unit. That means much of our behaviour is shaped by those pressures: men as patriarchs are the leading force in our communities; a woman’s worth is often seen to lie in how she takes care of her children and her man; and any outliers to this model (feminists, queer people, and non-white people) are outsiders, objects of suspicion and prejudice.
Cloud Nine is a play for those outliers, and Williams and his cast have created something of a love letter from a warring heart: there’s anger there – necessary anger for social injustice – but there’s also so much care for those who have been forced into various boxes. It’s defiant, direct, and tender.