BWW REVIEW: Caryl Churchill's Genderbending, Time Travelling CLOUD NINE Shines A Spotlight On How Much Society Has And Has Not Changed.
Thursday 6 July 8pm, Wharf 1 Theatre Walsh Bay
Caryl Churchill's CLOUD NINE, which premiered 38 years ago is reinterpreted for the 21st Century by Director Kip Williams. Set over 150 years and half a world apart, this comic work, which proved confronting in 1979, remains a wonderful examination of the progress of gender equality and sexual freedom.
The premise of Churchill's play is that the audience initially meets the domineering Clive (Josh McConville) and his family during the hot summer of Africa, represented by Elizabeth Gadsby's (designer) expanse of dark red dirt and a stark white greenhouse which houses a Victorian Grand piano, where he has been posted as a Colonial Administrator. As per Churchill's stipulations, Clive's wife Betty is portrayed by a male, in this case Harry Greenwood), whilst his eldest child Edward is to be presented by a woman with Heather Mitchell filling the young boy's role. His daughter Victoria is represented by what is clearly a plastic doll, tossed between the children's nanny Ellen (Kate Box) and the disinterested Betty. Betty's mother Maud (Anita Hegh) also lives with the family, having stayed longer than an acceptable visit according to Clive's estimations and the house is served by black servant Joshua who Churchill has also required that the role be cast with a white actor, in this instance Matthew Backer. Whilst Betty, supported by her mother, wants nothing more than to be the wife and mother that Clive, and society, expect of her, the household is turned upside down by the visiting explorer Harry Bagley (Anthony Taufa) and neighbouring widow Mrs Saunders (Kate Box). With this combination, Act one explores the hypocrisy of Clive's demands that Betty be a faithful and pure and that the rest of the household obey him whilst he shows a disturbed sexual interest in the independent Mrs Saunders, the one part of his 'world' he cannot control. Betty battles with a desire for the rugged Harry while he tries to deflect her intentions, preferring the males of the household, regardless of age. Edward has a fascination with Victoria's doll, much to his father's disgust and his nanny only has eyes for Betty.
The Second act retains the characters of Betty, Edward and Victoria as we meet them 25 years older than the first Act but set over 150 years later in a green parkland contemporary England. After a flash of scenes in the greenroom the audience realises that the roles have been swapped, with Mitchell now taking on the role of the Matriarch Betty whilst Greenwood becomes the 30 something son Edward and Hegh takes on the role of Victoria which, in addition to no longer being plastic, is miraculously older than her brother. Whilst the women have become more empowered in the 21t Century, there are still elements of the old world that remain, particularly Victoria's obnoxious husband, the want-to-be Lothario Martin (Anthony Taufa) and Edward's desire to be a doting 'housewife' in his relationship with the promiscuous and commitment phobic Gerry (Matthew Backer). The bookish Victoria, now a mother to the unseen toddler Tommy makes friends with Lin (Kate Box), a single mother to the capricious five year old Cathy (Josh McConville). As Victoria discovers herself, Betty also discovers her freedom, both financially and sexually, throwing off the shackles of the past along with her marriage to Clive.
This production is wonderfully crafted to balance the comedy with the seriousness of the underlying study of gender, power, sexuality and prejudice. The physicality in the first act is brilliant in both its slapstick humour and the nuance that captures McvConville's coquettish femininity as Betty, Mitchell's clumsy eagerness as Edward and Backer's expression of Joshua's evil resentment. There is a bold brashness of the sexuality to hit home power of sex and the shift of power when normally in control Clive is easily manipulated by a switch of Mrs Saunder's riding crop. The second act sees a more natural expression with the comedy less driven by physicality in favour of the text and generally taking a more serious tone.
Chris Williams has composed some wonderful songs that help ground the work as they are woven into the work throughout the two acts. The standout vocals come from Backer as Joshua and Gerry but the whole ensemble handle the works well, capturing the comedy of the Gilbert and Sullivan-esque opening number and the poignancy of others.
CLOUD NINE is a beautifully created production that is a must see in terms of the blend of comedy, truth, shock, and continued relevance. A thoroughly entertaining work for not only its fantastic storyline but the wonderful performances and the committed comedy.
Wharf 1 Theatre Walsh Bay
1 July - 12 August 2017