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Cloud Nine review (Wharf 1 Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company)

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Director Kip Williams’ production of Caryl Churchill’s 1979 masterpiece Cloud Nine starts with a Gilbert and Sullivan-esque musical number, establishing Churchill’s characters and their first-act world.

Not only is it a useful guide for the various relationships and the hierarchy at play during that act — particularly useful when characters are played by actors who are often not the same gender, age, nor race as their characters — it sets the perfect tone and places all the characters clearly into their positions.

It’s a play of two very distinct acts, but at the centre of the first is Clive (Josh McConville), a colonial administrator on a British colony somewhere in Africa in the 1860s, and his obedient wife Betty (Harry Greenwood). The pair have two children, the baby Victoria (represented by a doll), and their young effeminate son Edward (Heather Mitchell).

“There’s a darkness where [Churchill] lays the blame of her characters’ unhappiness squarely at the feet of the existing patriarchal and colonialist power structures.”

Revolving around the central family are a series of supporting characters, including ‘Uncle’ Harry Bagley (Anthony Taufa), a pansexual explorer with a voracious sexual appetite, Joshua (Matthew Backer), Clive’s black African houseboy who believes in white superiority, and Ellen (Kate Box), the children’s governess who harbours a deep love for Betty.

It’s hard to imagine a situation with much more of a suffocating idea of social order than the one which British society imposed upon its citizens and then extended out to its colonies.

But from that suffocation have sprung forth many comedies about British society’s restrictions on sex and self-expression. While Churchill’s first act is brilliantly funny, there’s a darkness where she lays the blame of her characters’ unhappiness squarely at the feet of the existing patriarchal and colonialist power structures. She also demonstrates that both power structures work in much the same way, and are derived from the same place of superiority.

Apart from Clive — the patriarch of the family and the ruling force in the colony — every other character is trying, usually in a subtle way, to break free of the expectations placed upon their identity (made up of age, gender, race, class etc.)

The second act hurtles forward to the late 1970s in London (although Williams has set the act even closer to 2017), and features Betty, Edward and Victoria, who have only aged 25 years since the first act. Without Clive, and in a somewhat more liberated age, they’re able to explore their desires and identities with burgeoning freedom.

They’re also all played by different actors for the second act — Heather Mitchell and Harry Greenwood swap mother and son roles and Anita Hegh moves from Betty’s mother, Maud, to Betty’s daughter, Victoria.

Churchill’s conceit is a relatively complex and potentially confusing one, but there’s great clarity to her writing, Williams’ direction, and all the performances.

Given that our understanding and expression of identity politics has evolved quickly in the last few decades, the text has aged very well, particularly where Betty and her son Edward are concerned. The second act sees them both cast adrift without the patriarch in their lives, and their respective journeys to build their own lives and family structures are beautifully expressed.

“Williams throws the focus onto the text and characters, but that’s not to say his production doesn’t have its share of bold theatricality.”

This production is blessed with a beautiful performance from Heather Mitchell, first as the terrified young boy Edward, who wants to play with his sister’s dolls, but understands that he will be severely punished if he does so, and then as Betty, an older woman slowly, painfully and joyously breaking free of decades of oppression. Mitchell’s delivery of Betty’s second act monologue, about rediscovering the sexual joy that had been shamed out of her, is extraordinarily moving.

The groundwork for Betty is laid perfectly in the first act by Harry Greenwood. Although his appearance as a tall man in a Victorian gown initially draws some giggles, it’s a grounded and well-observed performance. Kate Box is another standout, first in her dual roles in the first act — as two woman at very opposite ends of the liberation spectrum — and then in the second as Victoria’s female lover Lin.

Josh McConville successfully shifts from Clive, the character with the most power in the first act, to Cathy, a young girl in the second. Anita Hegh and Matthew Backer also both impress in diverse roles, while Anthony Taufa is generally strong as Martin but doesn’t have quite the impact you might hope as Harry Bagley.

There’s great complexity to all of these characters and how they exist in the worlds of both acts. Williams throws the focus onto the text and characters, but that’s not to say his production doesn’t have its share of bold theatricality, thanks to composer Chris Williams’s songs, Alexander Berlage’s lighting and Elizabeth Gadsby’s design.

In the first act, the entire floor is covered in dark brown dirt, with a small glass conservatory at the back of the stage. In the second, the floor is covered with bright green grass.

And there’s a stunningly simple final image which ties together who these characters once were, who they are now, and who they might become.

This is a wonderful production of a wonderful play, full of compassion for its characters as they start to change their own worlds — from the inside out.

Cloud Nine is at Wharf 1 Theatre until August 12. Featured image by Daniel Boud

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