Theatre Review: STC’s Cloud Nine does much to draw you in to this most powerful play (Performances to August 12th)

In a bleak midwinter comes forth STC’s Cloud Nine– surprising, hilarious, shocking and magnificent.

The staging bespokes a Kip Williams production in its minimal design, allowing focus to solely rest upon its carefully selected cast. A layer of dirt covers the ground, upon it a glass box to which the actors retire occasionally to be “indoors” or in-scene but unable to be heard or seen by the other characters. Their voices projected outwards of the box. Other objects grace the stage at intervals where necessary- foliage, tables, a swing, but it remains consistently minimal. The effect is notable in the smaller space that is the Wharf 1 theatre, and does much to draw you in rather than distance its audience.

Returning to the brilliance of this carefully selected cast for a moment. Playwright Caryl Churchill has here created players that outwardly reflect their inward values. In the first act Harry Greenwood plays the wife Betty, “a man because she wants to be what men want her to be” explains Churchill. Matthew Backer plays the native African servant Joshua, as “a white man because (Joshua) wants to be what whites want him to be”. But as the play reveals itself, these motives have darker consequences and create deeper layers to the character’s construction than what first appears.

These reveals are most prominently reflected in the time/character jump between the first and second act. For in the first act we are in Victorian Africa with misogynist Clive and his family, including his wife Betty and their son Edward. In the second we remain with Betty and Edward, but time has jumped closer to the present and these actors have switched roles, the remaining cast becoming new interconnected characters.

It is a smooth feat that is handled perfectly. Greenwood is truly fabulous in his dual roles as Betty and Edward. In particular for Betty, although the hilarity in the casting is not played off, Greenwood manages to not let this overwhelm the character. We understand the significance of the gender, move past that, and begin to seek to understand just Betty. Both Heather Mitchell’s Edward and Betty are entirely compelling. The manner in which she is able to pull of the youthful Edward’s awkward struggles is haunting- everything from his loping movements to the earnestness of his battles between what he feels and what Clive constantly heaves upon him. Josh McConville is another particular stage-stealer as Clive, outspokenly echoing the more quiet suggestions of Churchill’s work.

More subtly, Backer’s Joshua is an incredibly powerful presence on stage. His dialogue is less frequent but he is often present on stage, and the emotion expressed through facial cues alone is deafening. More than once I found myself completely enraptured by the darkness of Joshua’s glare, and a scene in which he appears on stage covered in a caking of mud dripping down the side of his carefully blank face was spine tingling.

Although I did prefer the first act, given the nature of its setting, its dialogue and its character building, I certainly appreciated the significance of the second act, and in particular the poignant scene towards the end of the play shared between older Betty and Gerry at the swing. Similarly moving throughout both acts were the songs sung by the characters, including a chilling chorus of “In The Bleak Midwinter”.

So much comes out of this play- it is perfectly calm but outspoken (as Maud would say) in its commentary upon race, gender, sexual orientation. It is at times comedic and incredibly dark.

There is an all-encompassing blackout that happens between scenes, moments where you are left feeling entirely unaware of what will be happening when the lights return, and it is exactly this feeling of questioning that reflects the experience that is watching STC’s Cloud Nine. It is a puzzle, a thoroughly enjoyable one.

STC will take you to Cloud Nine at the Wharf 1 Theatre until the 12th August. For more information and to book visit sydneytheatre.com.au

The reviewer attended the Opening Night performance on the 6th July 2017.

Photo credit (c) Daniel Boud.