Fri October 4, 2002
"Cloud Nine" compares the repressive sexual mores of the Victorian age with the erotic free-for-all of the 1980s.
By Bill Marx
Providence, RI –
When "Cloud Nine" premiered in 1980, its satiric target was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her conservative reinvention of the British Empire. Today, a liberal prime minister, Tony Blair, is in charge of the country and the progressive ideals championed by playwright Caryl Churchill look somewhat tweedy. The sexual revolution has long come and gone.
But if the political aspect of "Cloud Nine" has dated or become unexpectedly ironic, the play remains exhilarating. Churchill turns the theater into a playground to protest the tyranny of gender roles. She also attacks the pigeonholing of actors into set expectations. Anything goes in this play: men play women and girls, whites play blacks, and characters from a hundred years ago pop up in the present.
"Cloud Nine" bends time as well as gender. The first half of the play, set in 1880, is a broad lampoon of the hypocrisy of the Victorian age. A British family in Africa puts down the natives while letting its sexual desires run riot, though in secret. On the surface, all is traditional, with the macho husband patronizing his overprotected wife.
In fact, the brutal husband is having an affair, the effeminate son likes to play with dolls, the wife is flirting with an explorer who has a thing for boys, and the governess is a lesbian. Victorian society frowns on sex, but this disapproval only makes fulfilling basic instincts more pleasurable.
The second half of the play is set in 1980. Some of the earlier characters return and they are only 25 years older. Primal instincts are given free reign, sexual roles are up-for-grabs, bisexuality and orgies are a lifestyle choice. Yet Churchill's characters still have not found the bliss they seek -- with freedom come responsibilities, such as children. And sex on demand does not satisfy a hunger for community.
It is a credit to Churchill's sharp writing that the play's caricatures remain compelling though they are no longer shocking. Unfortunately, the play drops the racial conflict raised in the first half. And it never really tackles a vital issue -- can too much sexual freedom be a bad thing?
The Trinity Repertory Company co-production with the Berkeley Repertory Theatre is generally fine, a nuanced seriocomic romp. The staging is a bit too cartoonish in the first half, but overall the direction is savvy. Acting standouts include Angela Brazil and Cynthia Strickland. Over 20 years after its premiere, "Cloud Nine" remains a high.