Interview: Matthew Backer talks being on Cloud Nine with this most complex play (now playing in Sydney!)

Scandalously funny, thought-provoking and heartbreaking, Cloud Nine is an enduring theatrical masterpiece.

However, after seeing it last week we had some questions… and who better to answer them then someone close to the heart of it all? Cue Matthew Backer, who takes on the dual roles of Joshua and Gerry in the production, and who has managed to dish some of the dirt (literally, not figuratively) on this spectacular play.

Cloud Nine is a bit of a topsy turvy- being incredibly humourous one moment and incredibly dark the next, sometimes both at once. How do you all balance this out on stage?

As cliché as it sounds, I just remind myself that that’s life: incredibly humourous one moment and incredibly dark the next. So once you hold onto the truth of that mammoth notion, it makes it much easier to attack certain moments that on the page might feel like they come out of left field. Caryl Curchill is a playwright who does not provide easy answers to her actors nor her audiences, so you really have to just make sure you’re very, very present in every moment and ride the Churchillian roller-coaster.

Kip Williams makes reference in the program that he only really began to understand what this production of Cloud Nine was going to be talking about once you seven actors started to make it manifest. What were those early discussions like, and how did the play evolve once you started rehearsals?

The marvel and challenge of this script, and a lot of Churchill’s works, is that at first glance of a scene, you mistakenly think, ‘Oh yea, I know what this scene is about. Easy!’ But then the more you rehearse it, the more lost in it you feel, like you’re falling really, really fast, which is exciting and nerve-wracking. So lots of discussions about why a character might be doing what he or she is doing and then just getting up and doing it, throwing yourself in there again and again to figure it out mentally and physically. And then spending a heap of time on your own, fretting and pacing back and forth, anxious that you’re not understanding your character at all and repeatedly sighing, ‘I’m such a crap actor!’. Churchill writes characters that are wanting multiple things at the same time and often wanting almost opposite things in the same moment. Which essentially means she just writes complex human characters. Which consequently means, they’re never easy to play, they should cost you something playing them every time, but gosh they’re the most addictive and most rewarding characters to play.

Without giving too much of the play away for those who have yet to see it (but really should soon!), how do you see the true nature of your first character Joshua? How did you approach the complexity in being cast as “a black servant played by a white man because he wants to be what whites want him to be”?

Safe to say that never in my life did I think I’d be playing a ‘black’ character one day. You just approach it like you would any other character. You think about who they are as a person, what they want etc not what skin colour they are. You can’t play being black, anyway. You just have to endeavor to understand them as much as you can and play that person. Caryl Churchill states that a white man must play Joshua, just as a man must play Betty and a woman must play Edward. This cross-gender and cross-racial casting is important because these characters exist in a world where their inner is screaming to conquer their outer: Betty yearns to be what men want her to be, Edward finds it hard to be a ‘normal’ boy, Joshua wants to be what white men want him to be (a white man). So at the beginning of Act One, I’m not doing anything too complex other than presenting Joshua to be the perfect ‘white’ servant. In Joshua’s mind, he is so good at trying to be a white man for his white family (mainly for his master, Clive) that he has become a white man. Slowly, this is chipped away, bit by bit, until Joshua is forced to choose whether he can truly keep this white façade up forever. So rehearsals were spent mapping these chips and mapping the moments when he might drop the façade and breathe as his former ‘black’ self in this new suffocating Victorian/English world.

And how do you see Joshua’s relation to Gerry, your second character? I found the scene at the swing towards the end of the play to be particularly poignant in linking the two acts.

I guess I connect Joshua and Gerry by their placement on the outer rims of Caryl’s world. Joshua often exists in the background of scenes, cutting a lonesome, silent figure amongst the chaos of Clive’s domain. Gerry too exists on the outer rim of Act Two, often by choice, pushing away intimacy and claiming to enjoy being alone. Not wanting to give too much away, he is also a character that breaks the theatrical rules of the piece and has moments with the audience on his own. So even though they’re two completely different characters, in my heart I feel they’re connected through time and space. The scene you mentioned is with Heather Mitchell’s Betty, and it is a gift, not only because it’s a beautifully written scene but because staring into Heather Mitchell’s eyes every night and getting to act with her is incredible. This scene also connects us back to Act One when Heather as Edward and myself as Joshua share a stolen moment away from the family. Fast forward more than a century, and we’re sharing another stolen moment by the swing.

You get to sing another set of incredible songs in Cloud Nine, what significance do you feel these particular songs gave to the production?

All the songs are in the script. Caryl wrote lyrics for the jolly opening number introducing the audience to the family and to the Cloud Nine song in Act Two. Both songs were then composed by the wondrous Chris Williams. The opening song is great because it sets up the farcical, fun, frenetic mood of Act One and introduces the characters to the audience with a bang and the Cloud Nine song comes at a point in the play when all the characters have had their own personal dark nights of the soul, and it’s a brilliant structural device that shatters the Act apart and allows the characters to collect themselves and venture down new paths. The other songs in the play, Joshua’s Christmas carol In The Bleak Midwinter and Betty’s A Boy’s Best Friend Is His Mother, are songs that Caryl has popped into her play, one could argue, for a number of reasons, from breaking up the Act a bit more, to advancing a character’s story, to throwing a curveball to her actors and audience, the list goes on.

And finally. The dirt floor. How easy is that to clean off between acts?

Let’s just say, scrubbing gloves are my best friend in the shower at interval and our dressing room floor gets nice and brown every night.

Matt will be appearing in Cloud Nine at the Wharf 1 Theatre until the 12th August. For more information and to book visit sydneytheatre.com.au

Photo credit (c) Daniel Boud.