Does the playful transgression of Caryl Churchill’s ‘Cloud Nine’ still have the capacity to shock?
The Sydney Theatre Company is in the middle of a realignment, having farewelled Andrew and Cate as well as Jonathan Church, whose aborted appointment lasted only months last year. The staff will up sticks to Fox Studios early next year so that work can begin on a facelift for the Wharf, while shows will continue to be staged across the road at the Roslyn Packer and at the Opera House. There are rumblings of a third, undisclosed site that may or may not take the form of a pop-up in Sydney’s CBD. The STC’s young new artistic director, Kip Williams, inherited the current season from Church, though he was heavily involved in its configuration, and it will be interesting to see how he makes the company, where he’s been in residence since 2013, his own.
One of the most exciting STC shows in recent years was Calpurnia Descending in 2014, from Melbourne queer collective Sisters Grimm, a multimedia extravaganza that drew no less a personage than Katy Perry to Wharf 2. Subscribers hated it, of course. What they make of Caryl Churchill is anybody’s guess, though the playwright is clearly a Williams favourite. He directed Churchill’s Love and Information, a co-production with Malthouse, a couple of years ago at Wharf 1, and I’ll be surprised if she doesn’t figure when next year’s season is announced in September.
Now Williams has brought three of the actors from that production – Harry Greenwood, Anita Hegh and Anthony Taufa – back to the same theatre for Cloud Nine (until 12 August), the playwright’s 1979 comedy-but-not about sexual politics and the demise of the patriarchy. The original production featured Miriam Margolyes and Antony Sher, with Churchill riffing off personal stories related by the cast during extensive workshopping before writing began.
The play’s first half, set in darkest Africa in 1880, is broadly comic, a kind of Kipling send-up skewering the hypocrisy of the English colonial mindset and the repression it engenders. Harry Greenwood plays Betty, the young wife of Josh McConville’s moustachioed, britches-wearing officer. Their prepubescent, doll-loving son, Edward, is played by Heather Mitchell, while the African butler, Joshua, is played by white actor Matthew Backer. Kate Box appears as a widowed neighbour lasciviously pursued by McConville’s Clive, as well as Ellen, the governess harbouring a burning love for Betty.
Betty herself is all aflutter at the arrival of Harry (Taufa), a Richard Burton-esque explorer who performs a flirtation with her in order to obscure his homosexuality. Harry asks Joshua if he wants to fuck in the stables – “That’s not an order,” he insists – and spends his time evading the affections of Edward, the boy with whom he has clearly interfered on an earlier visit.
Designer Elizabeth Gadsby has created a set that’s inside and out simultaneously, with bodies running hither and thither throughout. Characters play hide-and-seek, a game that literalises the evasions by which each character is contorted. The violence done to oneself to please others is embodied by the gender-swapped roles, with Joshua, Edward and Betty all trying to disguise their true selves in order to live up to an ideal determined by the father figure, Clive, an exemplar who is grossly hypocritical.
The second act jumps forward to London, with the grass of a public park replacing the ochre dirt of the colonial outpost. The white Perspex cube that signified the family manor is now a greenhouse. Churchill’s conceit is to have certain characters reappear in the present day having aged only 25 years. So Harry Greenwood and Heather Mitchell swap roles: the former plays the adult Edward, a gardener, while Mitchell is his grey-haired mother, Betty. She’s on the brink of finally leaving Clive, who is entirely absent from the second act. Josh McConville plays Cathy, the child of Lin (Kate Box), a single mother with a crush on Edward’s sister, Vicky. She’s played by Hegh, given a meatier role here than in the first act, where she is underused as Betty’s gin-guzzling mother.
Churchill, in an introduction to the play included in the program notes, quotes Jean Genet on “the colonial or feminine mentality of interiorised repression”. That equivalence hovers over the second act, in which the comic exaggeration is gone, replaced by regret. Mitchell delivers a monologue for the ages as Betty, newly single and defiantly touting her rediscovery of shame-free masturbation. As she sits on a swing, figures from her past float across the stage.
One of them is the lesbian governess, Ellen, married off to Harry in Act One, who wonders aloud what she needs to know before her wedding night. Just lie still, Greenwood’s Betty advises her, to laughs. Later the same line curdles when it’s delivered by Mitchell, brimful with bitterness. McConville is as funny as ever, but he returns in the second act as Clive’s glass-darkly twin: the bloody ghost of Lin’s dead brother, a soldier, marching across the stage.
Taufa plays Vicky’s estranged husband, a boor writing a novel about women “from the woman’s point of view”. Backer, so fine as the manservant whose long-dormant rage explodes in a symbolic act of patricide at the conclusion of Act One, becomes Edward’s boyfriend Gerry. Suffocated by his partner’s wifely attentiveness, Gerry unknowingly echoes the complaints Edward has been hearing about his effeminacy (and tenderness) since he was a child.
The vocabulary of sexual fluidity is more mainstream now than it was in 1979, and by the end Cloud Nine proffers a non-nuclear family portrait that feels less than shocking, even familiar. What’s haunting is this production’s evocation of childhood, and the impossibility of fully clearing away the mental clutter instilled early. There’s a lovely scene where McConville’s Cathy bounds in to the park and interrupts a tete-a-tete between lovers Gerry and Edward. She looks at one and then the other, giggles complicity, and bounds off.
Harry Windsor is a critic for the Hollywood Reporter and is the former editor of Inside Film Magazine.