Tuesday, 7 January 2003

Cloud Nine by Caryl Churchill, MTC, Jan 7, 2003

 Cloud Nine by Caryl Churchill  
 Melbourne Theatre Company
Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, Jan 7 to  Feb 8, 2003
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Although it was developed and written in 1978, Caryl Churchill's play, Cloud Nine, seems a product of the 60's.

Churchill is less concerned with narrative than with issues surrounding sexual diversity - or aberration depending on one's view. The play was developed in the late 70's with Joint Stock,  a renowned English company that produced many great political dramas.

Churchill's style is affected by its group-devised beginnings. This form can leave a play, even in the hands of a playwright, with too many threads and voices. Churchill's style cracks traditional narrative and tosses the pieces in the air.

In the first half, we see an English colonial family in Africa. They are dressed, in Kate Cherry's  production, in Edwardian costume, which heightens their conservatism and paternalism toward the black population.

The father (Christopher Gabardi) rules not only the colony but also his wife, (Luke Mullins) her mother, (Gillian Jones) his son, (Clare Powell) their governess (Katherine Tonkin) and his black servant (Greg Stone). His only equal is his closeted, gay explorer friend, Bagley. (Matthew Dyktynski)

This half is very funny in its clever parody of the upper class colonials. Cherry accentuates the toffy-nosed git caricatures and it has the feeling of Benny Hill meeting a French farce. Cherry's direction is intelligent and slick. The acting from the entire ensemble is exceptionally strong.

 Gabardi is delightful as the father and playing a toddler in act two. Jones brings great skill and resonance to the aging Betty.   and Stone portrays the black servant with relish and wit.

The cross-dressing and cross-gender casting give Churchill's smart lines of dialogue dual meanings.

The lighting (Mark Howett) and set design (Christina Smith) create a luminous African savanna background with pristine white foreground.

The second half is less successful. Twenty-five  years pass. It is London in1978  and we see some of the same characters struggling with life in the fast lane with its innumerable sexual and lifestyle choices.

Churchill injects so many social issues into the second act that it becomes messy and unsatisfying. The wit of the first half is replaced with cheap sexual jokes and ridiculously complicated relationships and hippy lifestyle choices.

The detailed sexual references become adolescent. They were designed, presumably, to shock a 70's audience. We are almost unshockable these days.

By Kate Herbert

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