Cloud Nine by Caryl Churchill

This play reminds me of the sort of  ‘theatre of the absurd’ which we did in the 6th form, in the late 1960s, with our trendy drama teacher. It comes from the time of travelling theatre workshops visiting schools with anti-racist and gay liberation agendas. It is like a hilariously funny farce with its cross-dressing and some of us would love see it performed or, at least, see if it is on Youtube.  One member said that if had seen it in 1979 it would have changed his life.

The first act, set in Victorian Africa, shows how the colonials regarded the natives as primitive, herdsmen would gladly chop off others’ heads and wear them round their waists and how some natives knew their place, were ‘white’ in their souls though black of skin.

Friendship between men is seen as better and that of a husband to a wife, who is there for reproductive purposes but ‘there is something dark about women….irrational, inconsistent, lustful; treacherous.’

 One woman’s advice to a soon to be bride, who knows nothing about sex, is tojust keep still. You are not getting married to enjoy yourself

 Homosexuality is seen as a‘revolting perversion’ which led to the fall of Rome and is more contagious than diphtheria. It is especially important not to do it with natives since it would be a betrayal of the Queen.

The second act is a hundred years later, though I don’t understand why the characters are only twenty-five years older. Attitudes to sexuality are supposed to be liberated, there is mention of The Hite Report but there is still a feeling of oppression, with some male characters wearing dresses. Maybe attitudes don’t change as much as we think they do.

Although the play is well put together, the first act is more believable that the second. The second act is more disturbing than the first.  Its people claim to be liberated but are actually quite dysfunctional.

One member felt that it was cartoonish, a bad attempt at a Monty Python sketch.  The characters, wheeled out as stereotypes, are mannequins, upon which we can project. This view was challenged by one who said that they were more akin to archetypes or emblems.

The person who chose the book, who was unable to attend the discussion owing to illness, sent these notes:

Structurally v innovative with its move forward 100 years between acts 1 and 2 while only aging the characters by 25 years. (Typically bold theatrical manoeuvre by CC.)

Relationship between Edward and Gerry nicely problematic:  how does one find a basis for a gay relationship when there are no rules other than those established by a heterosexist history? It’s a problem also articulated in Gay Sweatshop’s Mister X of 1975.

Similarly problematic is the character of Martin, the failed New Man, a figure whom one initially dislikes but who then comes across with considerable pathos..

The play has been condemned as portraying sexual liberation as a kind of social panacea. Personally, I disagree with this criticism. I think CC provides us with Act 1 – the problem then, and Act 2 – the problem now, and I think this is done in an interesting and enlightening way. Be that as it may, the play is a milestone in the development of gay and feminist awareness.

Difficult to stage, however.  I have seen, I think, five different productions between 1980 and 2008.  Of those, only one – at the Almeida in 2008 – was really successful.

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