Sam Shore likes challenges, otherwise why would he choose to tackle one of the greatest, and most labyrinthine, plays of the 20th century; a play recently criticised for being trapped in the quasi-intellectual quagmire of the 1970s and for trumpeting the demise of second wave feminism?
I’m guessing that part of the answer may reside in the fact that Sam Shore likes to take risks and maybe, just maybe, he believes, as I do, that critics who have described Caryl Churchill’s groundbreaking radical feminist play as a bit of a cultural dinosaur are quite simply wrong.
The theatre must welcome risk-takers and should hold artists like Sam Shore close to its relentlessly arrhythmic heart because people like Sam are the lifeblood of the art form despite the constant self-questioning and angst that undoubtedly must, on a personal level, go hand-in-hand with championing such a role.
You don’t need me to tell you that Caryl Churchill is a great playwright but maybe it’s timely to remind ourselves that, like all great playwrights, and especially those with a polemic bent, Churchill certainly isn’t cheap and easy.
It’s a big enough job to get her sleeping giants – Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, Vinegar Tom, Top Girls, Fen and The Skriker – onto the stage, let alone to reflect on what they’re actually about, what joys may be lurking beneath an otherwise glib façade, or how actors and production folk might be empowered to articulate all this so that the audience can experience, at least once, one of those sublime Churchillian moments of ecstatic release that shout: “I get it, I get it, I fully understand!
Shore gets it, his team gets it and, as a result, we all get it. We even get why the play is called Cloud 9: a reference to an unreal state of elation, euphoria or happiness. It all, after all, seems a bit unreal.
Good Company’s Cloud 9 has moments of pure magic – magnificence, almost – and equal dollops of anguish, tenderness and pain. It’s a play that needs these mountains and troughs to fully engage with its common universality which, contrary to the opinions of its misguided critics, is much, much more than a ’70s zeitgeist flashback.
So what does Sam Shore do to get this party started? First, he casts from the best and he casts cleverly both from people he knows and has worked with in the past and from others he anticipates will not only do the job but who will enjoy the inevitable rollercoaster ride of discovery that is to follow. It’s often said that theatrical success starts with casting and it’s a spot-on observation in this case.
Second, he doesn’t shy away from the content of the play but engages fully with it. The production contains moments of ‘I can’t believe I just saw that!’ and ‘did she just …?’ and they’re all absolutely true to Churchill’s vision of a gender-diverse and sexually explicit society. There are times when it seems as though we are voyeuristically watching the subtext of other dramas – the grubby, unspoken netherworld of Ibsen’s ghastly men or the masked and secret psyches of Strindberg’s septic women – but always we are dragged back to colonial Africa, to post-colonial England, and to now.
The present is never far away and not just because Shore and his team have chosen to bring Act Two into the 21st century but simply because Churchill has irrevocably put us there by virtue of her subject matter, her Ellen Willis-like street smart feminist polemic and her commitment to feminist radicalism. Like Ellis, Churchill is a Reichian feminist whose clear understanding of the links between political authoritarianism and sexual repression permeates all of her work with Cloud 9: the rocket-propelled flagship for these ideas.
While Churchill herself has always refused to talk about her work, there are notable parallels with Ellis who, like Churchill, worked with grassroots theatre companies. For Ellis it was No More Nice Girls, a pro-choice street theatre group, and for Churchill it was the noteworthy feminist theatre collective Monstrous Regiment, as well as Joint Stock Theatre Company and a life-long association with London’s Royal Court, both links beginning in the mid ’70s when these companies were at their most adventurous and most radical.
So, why is this important? Simply because without an understanding of Churchill’s dialectic it is impossible to understand where she’s coming from both politically and socially and any chance of unscrambling her complex narrative – which in itself can stand alone – and of exposing her inherent humanist message is seriously diminished. No matter how good the story-telling might be, the essence of Cloud 9 is to be found in the polemic debate and not, as is so often the case in lesser work, simply in the narrative.
Shore has rearranged The Basement with audience on three sides, with standard entrances and exits from backstage and from audience right into, and from, the foyer. It works a treat by creating a performance space that, from the front is deep and somewhat narrow. This gives the actors a ‘fore and aft’ distance to expand into but not much width and, while Shore’s physical relationships worked well on opening night, they will become even more effective once the performers find a greater degree of comfort with a full house in residence.
The set is simple as befits a multi-scene production with a floor of real turf throughout, some economical and ageless colonial furniture in Act 1 and a park bench for Act Two. It’s uncomplicated and it does the trick.
Act One introduces us to Clive (David Capstick) and his extended family. He is a minor colonial bureaucrat in a nameless African outpost sometime in the 19th century and he’s upholding all that is good and proper for Empire, Queen and country. He a paragon of virtue and the stiff upper lip, the archetype of all that is good and proper about Victorian fatherhood and manly mateship, while simultaneously bonking his visiting neighbour Mrs Saunders (Renee Lyons) who has sought shelter with him, and occasionally shagging his manservant Joshua (Francis Mountjoy). Many a blind eye is turned.
In the meantime his chaste wife Betty (Steven Anthony-Maxwell) is platonically caught up with adventurer Harry (Joel Herbert), who just happens to be homosexual and who is involved in a man/boy love relationship with her nine year old gay son Edward (Jacque Drew) while, at the same time, lusting after Clive himself.
Ellen, the downtrodden governess (Genevieve Cohen), expresses her love and undying fealty to her mistress Betty but no-one takes her coming out seriously, we assume because the dear Queen has made it clear to one and all by her refusal to sign the Labouchere Amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 that she doesn’t believe women can do such things. It’s an urban myth, of course, originating in Wellington in 1977, but who’s going to let the truth get in the way of a damned good allegory especially if there are laughs to be had.
Servants are beaten, faces (and bottoms) are slapped, gay Harry is blackmailed by patriarch Clive into marrying lesbian Ellen and the whole is lauded over by Maud (Donagh Rees), a battleship of a matriarch who looks just like Her Majesty and, of course, knows every woman’s place.
As if for some perverse good measure – and as indicated above – Betty is played by a man, young Edward by an adult woman and Victoria by a rag doll; hypocrisy is rife, farce is the style and it’s all rib-achingly funny – in a dark and tragic sort of way. Just as Churchill planned it to be.
Act Two sees 25 years pass – it doesn’t make sense chronologically but it works brilliantly as a theatrical device to juxtapose the sexual repression of the 1880s with the liberation of the 1970s – and while some of the characters are reprised, the actors playing them have changed.
Edward (Steven Anthony-Maxwell) is all grown up and all come out and Betty (Jacque Drew) has just left Clive. Victoria (Donagh Rees) is in an unfulfilling marriage with Martin (Joel Herbert) and falls for Lin (Renee Lyons) whose soldier brother (Genevieve Cohen) has just been killed in Afghanistan and whose five year old daughter Cathy (David Capstick) is proving a bit of a bother. Gerry (Francis Mountjoy) begins and ends the act in a relationship of sorts with Edward but is otherwise the high, high priest of the zipless fuck.
The centrepiece of Act Two is a ritualistic invocation to the goddess Isis, initiated by Vicki and designed as a precursor to an orgy in the park. Marc Silverstein perhaps sums it up best: “Victoria, Lin and Edward meet in a park at night to perform what they variously describe as ‘an orgy’ and ‘a ceremony’, a ‘sacred rite’(Churchill 1985) during which they invoke the appearance of Isis, the Goddess who can ‘give us the history we haven’t had, make us the women we can’t be’. If this scene possesses a metatheatrical dimension, lending a gendered inflection to what Herbert Blau identifies as the fundamental urge animating all theatre, whether drama, ritual or performance – the expectancy in Edward’s question (which is also the audience’s question), ‘Will something appear?’ Whether it will or not, we want it to; even more important, as Blau recognizes, it wants to. (Blau 1992)” (Silverstein 1994)
Whether they are successful or not you’ll have to find out for yourself but either way the outcome determines the rest of the play and Shore’s production is totally successful in achieving both his and the playwright’s shared goal. The denouement is quite simply astonishing, but then, overall, the whole production is.
Is it perfect? No, it’s not, but this beggar’s the question: is it possible to create the perfect presentation of Churchill’s monumental work? My answer is probably not, but Shore’s production goes as close as could reasonably be expected, given that most of his cast weren’t even born when Churchill sat down with pen and paper to write it.
Shore’s production is intelligent, perceptive, cunning and funny. It farts in the face of any contemporary understanding of gender and sexuality in an artfully 21st century way while never losing any sense of Churchill’s contemporaneously liberated verve and I love it to bits. So do my fellow audience members on the almost full opening night and it doesn’t matter that there are moments of raggedness because they will disappear as the production settles.
The acting is uniformly wonderful. There’s a sense of unity, cohesion and a shared vision that is exciting and there is never a dull moment in the two and a half hour journey.
I was first attracted to Donagh Rees’s charismatic talent when she was still a Theatre Corporate student and she remains one of the most watchable and inventive actors around. She anchors the production as the matriarch Maud in Act One while in Act Two her Vicki is vulnerable and often at sea with the novelty of her new-found sexual emancipation. She leads the invocation with a physical and vocal freedom that makes the rest of the ritual possible and superbly sets up the drawing together of the threads that make up the conclusion of the play.
Renee Lyons (Mrs Saunders and Lin) is stunning throughout and her travel from mannered dominatrix in Act One to the heightened naturalism of Act Two is, alone, worth the ticket price.
Steven Anthony-Maxwell’s cross-dressed Betty is as moving a performance as I’ve seen in a month of Sundays. It’s beautifully pitched and exquisitely underplayed and he cleverly allows Churchill’s parody simply to simply speak for itself.
Joel Herbert’s gay adventurer Harry and try-hard husband Martin are both finely drawn characters and Martin, in particular, has a complex character arc that Herbert travels courageously.
There are actually no bad performances and Jacque Drew’s Betty, Francis Mountjoy’s Gerry and Genevieve Cohen’s Ellen are all splendid creations. Best of all, they selflessly serve the play.
Shore’s decision to have live music is a masterstroke and to be able to call on a young composer of the talent of Alex Taylor (keyboards) to compose and create a soundscape for the work is a bonus for us all. I last saw, and heard, Taylor in After Lilburn, a highlight of the recent Pride Festival, and he was wonderful in that as well. Store his name away because you’ll hear a lot more of, and from, him in the years to come. His ensemble for Cloud 9 includes Rachel Wells on ’cello, Emma Fetherston on viola and Samantha Dench on flute: they’re all delightful.
The decision to take Act Two out of 1979 and to put it into 2013 is an interesting one and I’ve already alluded to it. Mostly it worksd, but the decision to take Lin’s dead brother out of Northern Ireland, with all the xenophobic resonances present in that conflict, and to place him in distant Afghanistan, where the threat of Irish colonial terrorism on the doorstep is removed, is done, for me at least, at some cost. It’s a choice, however, and it’s Shore’s choice not mine and as quibbles go it’s absolutely minute, so much so that I’m almost sorry I mentioned it.
Almost. I’ve read the Cloud 9 programme a number of times. It’s informative and useful but I can’t find any reference to funding anywhere. If this means there was none then I’m shocked. If I’ve missed it I’m sorry. Self funding ventures of this size and of this quality – both in vision and execution – should be a thing of the past. While it does us no harm to be seen as pioneers in the arts I would have hoped that work of this potential would have found a funding agency with the resources to ensure that the financial risk inherent in the staging of work of this quality would not, yet again, rest on the shoulders of those making it. After all, we spent $330m keeping our troops in Afghanistan, didn’t we, and for what?
It’s ironic, don’t you think? Afghanistan? I bet Churchill would have a few words to say about that!
Blau, H. (1992). To All Appearances: Ideology and Performance. New York, Routledge.
Churchill, C. (1985). Cloud Nine. Plays: One. London, Methuen. 1: 308.
Silverstein, M. (1994). “‘Make Us The Women We Can’t Be’: Cloud Nine and The Female Imaginary.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism Spring(Spring).
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