Hill College Theatre Company
Cloud Nine is considered to be the famously controversial writer Caryl Churchill’s most seminal work. A dual narrative set first in colonial Africa and then in 70s England, actors double up roles, playing characters from different periods, of varying ages, genders and – bizarrely – races. A momentous task for student theatre, and particularly for first-time director Justin Murray, and despite Hill College Theatre Company’s best efforts, I’m not sure that they pulled it off.
Sexuality is so central to the drama that it is practically a character in itself, and this was apparent even before the performance started. Each ticket had either ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ written on it that dictated which side of the auditorium you were to enter. Whilst seeming a bit of a gimmick, this effectively created a kind of sexual segregation that was mirrored in the play, particularly in the first act where the characters refuse to discuss issues like homosexuality or adultery, referring to it as a ‘sin’.
Overall, the production had the feel of a debauched pantomime, and this was especially apparent in the performances. Although the cast were undeniably strong, worked excellently together and did well differentiating between their two characters, it felt as if they had been directed to become larger-than-life and consequently some scenes felt a little overplayed and lacked much-needed pathos. In a way the farcical elements of the play actually undermined its emotional core. One notable exception to this was the scene where governess Ellen (Connie Byrne-Shore) confesses her love for housewife Betty (Michael Huband), which was genuinely touching, with Byrne-Shore conveying a repressed longing and an inner battle with a desire that was, at the time, considered wrong.
Other standout moments came from Will Downes as Gerry, a man addicted to anonymous sex, who delivered some incredibly natural soliloquies and managed to establish a true connection with the audience. But it was Idgie Beau who was the most convincing performer of the evening. From the Lady Bracknell-esque matriarch Maud in the first act to newly liberated housewife Betty in the second, Beau’s characterisation was understated and perfectly nuanced. Her worryingly convincing on-stage orgasm was one of the most memorable moments of the entire play, providing a genuinely provocative moment in a piece that now seems a little tired.
In general, the performance was well staged and there were some lovely moments, particularly in the young Edward’s (Emily Winter) depiction of her dreams. However, I felt the use of the auditorium as a continuation of the performance space, whilst an interesting concept, didn’t really work in the traditional layout of the Assembly Rooms. Whilst I applaud Murray’s attempts to be adventurous, they would have been more suited to a less conventional theatre and in any case I felt they were relied upon too heavily as a method of keeping the energy of the piece up.
I felt that the main issue with Cloud Nine was, in fact, the choice of play. It was billed as ‘the most outrageous thing you’ll see in Durham this year’, and unfortunately I think it’s more difficult to shock an audience in 2012 than it was in 1979 when the play was first performed. In an effort to cause controversy, Churchill used the questionable tactics of characters swearing profusely, talking about sex and being gay. These things aren’t shocking anymore – nor, indeed, should they be. Even if the more provocative moments still held some power, I spent the majority of the three-hour running time wondering precisely what the message of Cloud Nine was. I’m still not sure. But perhaps the fact that I’m still thinking about it is a good thing.
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30 April 2012