Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 is one of those seminal plays that gets better the more you read it. It was written in 1978 but it still feels like an inventive, risky and controversial play when it’s read today.
I greatly admire Churchill for the way she makes the personal political. Relationships and marriage become a vehicle for her thoughts on gender, sexuality, racism and colonialism. Everything means more than what’s immediately obvious on the surface.
Cloud 9 is a hugely ambitious project: Act 1 takes place in Africa during Queen Victoria’s reign of empire building with three of the characters played by actors of the opposite gender or race and Act 2 takes place a century later but only 25 years later in the character’s lives. And just to make it a little bit more challenging for the audience, the actors have swapped characters and some characters who were played by men are now played by women.
Churchill sets up the device of gender-swapping roles in the opening song and verse when Clive, the patriarch, introduces his family.
CLIVE: My wife is all I dreamt a wife should be,
And everything she is she owes to me.
BETTY: I live for Clive. The whole aim of my life
Is to be what he looks for in a wife.
I am a man’s creation as you see,
And what men want is what I want to be.
Betty, who is played by a man in Act 1, is trying desperately to be the right and proper wife for her husband, even when it means squashing her own desire. Their son Edward is played by a woman to make the family’s attempts to toughen the child up and make a man of him even more ridiculous. And then there’s the racism displayed towards the servant Joshua (played by a white man to highlight his desire to be white like his master) and to the ‘savages’ inhabiting the land around them.
CLIVE: You can tame a wild animal only so far. They revert to their true nature and savage your hand. Sometimes I feel the natives are the enemy. I know that is wrong. I know I have a responsibility to care for them and bring them all up to be like Joshua. But there is something dangerous. Implacable. This whole continent is my enemy.
Much of the language and behaviour is grotesque to the point of buffoonery – and that’s part of what makes the play so powerful. It’s very funny but in the sort of way that makes you feel guilty for laughing. There are hugely oversexed characters like Harry, who is happy to have sex with little boys, servants and men while he courts married women as a cover for his “revolting perversion”.
HARRY: I suppose getting married wouldn’t be any worse than killing myself.
The second act, set in London in the permissive 1970s sees Edward and Victoria (the children from the first act) grown up and struggling with their own relationships. Betty has finally left Clive and is trying to live on her own, but she’s struggling because she has no respect for women, which means she can’t like or respect herself.
BETTY: I’ve never been so short of men’s company that I’ve had to bother with women.
LIN: Don’t you like women?
BETTY: They don’t have such interesting conversations as men. There has never been a woman composer of genius. They don’t have a sense of humour. They spoil things for themselves with their emotions. I can’t say I do like women very much, no.
LIN: But you’re a woman.
BETTY: There’s nothing says you have to like yourself.
Cloud 9 is a play to make you think, question and laugh out loud.
Publisher: Nick Hern
Cast: 4M, 3F