Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9 is a gem of a script. British playwright Churchill fearlessly grabs huge hunks of history, social custom and sacred cows, and with delicious glee, hurls them against a wall, where they stick and bleed together to create a crazy, mixed-up new world order.
Last weekend, Live Theatre Workshop revealed an intelligent and heartfelt rendering of Churchill's richly comic and provocative piece. Guided by the thoughtful direction of Chris Wilken, and given life by an evenly capable ensemble, LTW scores big.
In 1979, when Churchill's play was first produced, the English-speaking world was at the tail end of a cultural revolution, one of the chief products of which was feminism. "Women's lib," it was called, both defiantly and derisively. Not coincidentally, a sexual revolution was also taking place. Society's chastity belt was unlocked, and the key was thrown away, unleashing the desires and drives that had been suppressed in the service of respectability and Christian purity.
In Cloud 9, Churchill interprets this revolution and brave new world for us.
Act 1 gives us the historical moorings, a wickedly satirical look at British imperialism and its selfless determination to make the world safe for white people. In the dark jungle of the Dark Continent, Clive (Steve Wood) and his family attempt to maintain a stronghold of Victorian order while they try to bring those pesky natives into submission. The problem is that this tightly constructed order is entrusted to human beings, chaotic creatures that they are, especially when it comes to their sexual appetites.
Churchill has great fun creating this world. Clive's wife, Betty, is portrayed by a man (Christopher Johnson). Joshua, the native African manservant, is played by a white man (Chris Moseley). Young, effeminate son Edward is played by a woman (Elizabeth Leadon Sonnenfelt), and Carlisle Ellis plays both the household's governess, who carries a torch for Betty, and Mrs. Saunders, a woman who has happily cultivated her independence after the death of her husband, but who uses Clive, with his full cooperation, for sexual gratification. Betty's mother, Maud (Maxine Gillespie), watches uncomfortably over these unseemly carrying-ons, while another visitor, Harry Bagley (Clark Ray), introduces pedophilia and an attraction for Clive into the mix. Finally, daughter Victoria is portrayed with great comic effect—and disturbing inferences—by a ragdoll.
Churchill's broad swipes are outrageous, always surprising and thoroughly entertaining. While slapping hard at the institutions of god-and-country, marriage and gender roles, her vision is so cleverly constructed that she never needs to preach. Also absent is what could easily be mean-spiritedness, although there is certainly an edge to what is unapologetic and sharp-tongued criticism of the way we were.
For the second act, Churchill messes with us again. It takes place 100 years later, but the characters have only aged 25 years. Additionally, actors switch roles (and, little surprise, genders). Wood (who had been Clive) is now grown-up Edward. Johnson (Betty) is his gay lover, Gerry. Leadon Sonnenfelt (young Edward) is now grown-up Victoria. It's really not as confusing as it sounds. Rather, it's a meaningful convention, which the audience embraces without a problem; we've signed on for this ride.
This act is different in tone and temperament from the first. It's much less broad and biting, and has a less-defined, more-meandering feel. This is post-revolution, post-imperialism, after all, and the authoritarian and highly structured patriarchal order has given way to a less-linear, less-rigid feminine energy. It's actually counter-intuitive dramatically, but Churchill makes it work as the characters try to find their way in a world that's more comfortable with ambivalence. Victoria is married to Martin (Ray), a hopelessly chauvinistic man trying his best to show that he's on board with the feminism thing. But she is drawn to Lin (Gillespie), a lesbian (whose young daughter is played by Moseley with perfect seriousness). Edward declares that he really wants to be a woman—or that perhaps he is actually a lesbian.
But it's the appearance of much-older Betty (now played by Ellis) which ultimately gives the second act its power and impact. Announcing that she has divorced Clive, she is attempting to discover who she is without a man to define her. "If Clive wasn't looking at me, there was no one there," she muses without anger or accusation. "Don't you like women?" Lin asks her. Betty says she does not. "But you're a woman," Lin reminds her. Betty replies, "There's nothing that says you have to like yourself."
And there you have it.
There's no mystery that feminism and the sexual revolution grew up together, as Betty so eloquently suggests. For women to claim—to own—themselves fully requires their owning their bodies and the power of their sexuality, their libido, their life force.
Women's liberation is not merely about freeing women from a corrupt and perverse patriarchy so that they can hold the same jobs as men do, or seek equal pay and privilege. It's about liberating the enormous power and creative energy of half the Earth's population.
LTW's production is not perfect—the production's design elements are a bit rough around the edges, with the set being downright distracting; British accents come and go; and the opening song needs work. But it's absolutely good enough to deliver Churchill's insightful, funny, kick-ass script in a totally engaging and powerful way.
This is good theater. Go see it.