Frank Barnes

Cloud Nine

Written by Caryl Churchill
Directed by Kip Williams
Sydney Theatre Company
Wharf 1

Just a year ago, I had the great luck to see the latest play by Caryl Churchill at the Royal Court Theatre in London. The luck was being in London and only finding out it was on by accident. I was surprised that she was still writing and surprised that a play just over 10 minutes in running time could say so much with so much power. It also enlightened me to a new style of her writing that I had seen in Love and Information, which I had recently seen at the Sydney Theatre Company. In that play, she had written with seven scenes and no dialogue attributed to any particular actor. She uses a similar method here. In the production I saw, it was played by four actors but could well be played by one or more. In Cloud Nine, there are nine scenes with nine characters in each Act. Over the many years of her work she has change styles to best present her craft.

It was not until I saw the recent production of Cloud Nine at the Wharf that I realised that 37 years later she had written a small masterpiece called Pigs and Dogs that could well be a companion piece to Cloud Nine. In 2014, Uganda passed an Anti-Homosexuality Act and this play looks at what was behind it. The play is based on a book called Boy-Wives and Female-Husbands: Studies in African homosexualities. The play is presented as a sequence of statements from people over the years.

Only Heaven Knows

Music, book and lyrics by
Alex Harding
Directed by Shaun Rennie
Musical Director: Michael Tyack
Luckiest Production
In association with Hayes Theatre

This is the fourth production of the play with music I have seen and it still moves me as it runs a parallel story to my own life, albeit mine was 18 years or so later. Young man Tim (Ben Hall) arrives in Kings Cross from Melbourne in 1944 and after finding accommodation with Guinea (Blazey Best) starts his life as a gay man in Sydney. We are welcomed into this life by drag queen Lea Sonia (Hayden Tee) who was run over by a tram and her spirit now looks over the Cross. We follow Tim, Cliff (Tim Draxl) and Alan (Matthew Backer) as they find their feet and hope for the community along with their very gay friend Lana (also Hayden Tee) in the Cross towards the end of the war. The second act takes place in 1956 and the world has changed, and in the postwar era has moved into a much more conservative space with the police and public hard on gay people. A world where gay aversion therapy is used to “cure” people and often chosen by some who want to be “normal”.

My life followed a similar path. I came from Parramatta and also found my tribe in Kings Cross, which led to us eventually meeting in backrooms in Oxford Street. I was arrested in 1969 and could have been imprisoned but luckily there were “people who knew people” and I avoided any conviction. But I also found that in our community (and most communities considered minorities) it is one step forward and one back. Just as we were advising teachers to come out, along came HIV/AIDS and we were back to being abused and violated and hated.

The play was written in the middle of the AIDS pandemic and many thought it was going to be about life in that time. But it is actually more clever than that and looks at how the story keeps repeating itself and could well be about the battle for same-sex marriage. This was another success for the Hayes Theatre with director Shaun Rennie gathering a team of Sydney and the world’s best actors and production teams. (Hayden Tee has just returned from playing Javert in London).

The Rover at Belvoir is a return to the company of what we saw in the early days of its predecessor Nimrod. I saw all the plays at Nimrod in its early days at what is now The Stables Theatre run by Griffin and later on the Belvoir site. In those early days, a new style of Australian theatre was started with plays being presented that acknowledged that we were Australian and had a larrikin knockabout sense of humour.

Part of this style often meant acknowledging that there was an audience and bring that audience in on the story and the joke. The play written in 1677 by Aphra Behn is considered to be the first written by a woman. This is acknowledged by a very funny and raunchy opening where the audience is addressed directly by a cast member in the character of Behn.

From there it develops into a comedy of farce, love, mistaken identities and sword fights. Sexualities are confused and the audience gets involved as the cast enters and exits through them and sometimes casts their lustful eyes upon them. Like at the STC, this is directed by the Belvoir’s artistic director Eamon Flack, who has quickly re-established Belvoir as a main player in the Sydney theatre scene.

“ ... And a woman in Ghana
This is not so long ago
We girls had each other
now we’re married.
We buy big beds
and still meet each other
English Law says 1533
Forasmuch as there is not yet sufficient
and condign punishment
or the detestable and abominable vice of buggery
it may please the King’s Highness.....
that the same offence be henceforth judged a felony
Hang Them ... The laws against sodomy were imported to the colonies.
repealed in Britain
but thriving in the colonies.
Beating your wife
(she ends up dead)
Three months in prison
Emitting semen on another man’s leg
six months in prison.

While Cloud Nine was written in 1978 it was seen as a play about gender fluidity expressed through the power of the patriarchy in Colonial Africa. In the first Act the black servant is played by a white actor and the wife is played by a man, with the son played by the woman who is to play the wife in the second act and the son becomes the mother. There is also the maid and the grandmother and an old family friend. By switching the genders of the people playing the roles it heightens the style and accentuates the way the white patriarch relates to his wife, child, best friend and servant. As well as the ruling patriarchy there is the fluidity of sexuality (some more shocking now than it was when the play was first written). The second act occurs 150 years later in modern Britain but the characters have only aged twenty five years. By this time the role of the patriarch is still there but has the relationships are different and sexuality attitudes are also very different.

Artistic director of the STC Kip Williams is a fine director who finds every nuance possible in this great production. A top line cast present this thought provoking and very funny play, which has not left my mind since I saw it. It is a year now since I saw Pigs and Dogs and I am even more enthused about the greatness of Caryl Churchill as an author.

In 1978 she wrote Cloud Nine, which has long been my favourite play for its complexity and fun, and then comes up with a 10-minute masterpiece, which looks at how attitudes to sexuality were imported to the colonies to the point where fluid sexuality is now considered a crime deserving of the death penalty. Whereas back in merry old England the same fluidity has led to same-sex marriage now being legal.

I don’t know how many plays she has left to write but I hope I have the luck to see them.

Frank Barnes is a happily retired theatre goer who loved the staged reading of Mame at the Hayes Theatre, performed after only one day of rehearsal. Mame is one of those great old musicals written when almost all the songs were good