Uncomfortable Distances

Cloud 9
Directed by Alicia Palmer
Jan 19-Feb 21 2010
Mirvish Productions

How we view the past is often revealing of our current attitudes and beliefs. Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 explores the myth of progress that allows us to claim that we know better now and startles the assumption that we are necessarily better off on the basis of that knowledge. The play’s first act, set in Africa in the 1880’s at the height of Victoria’s reign, satirizes the stereotypes of British colonial rule and gender roles. At the heart of its satire, though, is a touching pathos for the characters whose longings and urges remain repressed or haltingly, half-expressed. We meet these characters again, in different transmogrifications, played by different performers, and in a different atmosphere, a century later in central London. Though they are now liberating themselves from stultifying sexual and gender roles, their relationships are not any less complicated or unstable, nor are they consequently happier. Throughout much of her work, Churchill refrains from portraying post-liberation eras as automatically free from the discontents, hypocrisies and anxieties that plagued individuals before their social or political deliverance.

Why a consideration Churchill’s themes becomes pertinent to any review of a production of her work is that the success of that production greatly depends upon its navigating the problems inherent in Churchill’s script and its underlying implications. Mirvish’s production of Cloud 9, directed by Churchill veteran Alisa Palmer, does not stray from the text, and so comes into both its brilliant language as well as its challenges. We are treated to a group of seasoned actors whose experience spans multiple decades and venues across Canada, and who delight in their comedic timing. Their performances are assertive and snappy, and they keep the pace rolling along cartwheels of wit. This cast tends to emphasize the entertaining elements of the play, its double entendres and its engaging repartee. As a result, they are prone to deliver their speeches like punchlines, and to miss some of the play’s more thoughtful ironies. The catch to Churchill’s epigrammic style is that while it is certainly diverting to lambast the characters’ glib, dismissive biases, doing so permits the audience to view such prejudices at a comfortable distance, and to cordon them off into a less enlightened age. This sense of comfort is the very reaction that the play tries to render precarious and untenable. Mirvish’s production delivers on the play’s provocations, but its success in sensitizing the audience to its pathos and shadedness is limited to the strength of individual performances, which are spirited though uneven. Partly because of the disparity between the performances, and partly because of how they make use of their space, this cast does not quite coalesce into an ensemble.
The assembled cast pitches into the first act with a rousing chorus lauding England, each of them gazing off into an African horizon like stylized figures on a propaganda bill. This patriotic anthem evokes different reactions from audience members of different generations. For those who came of age during the Second World War, these rallying cries may recall memories of when Canadians were more overtly proud of their ties to the Commonwealth; yet audiences members of every age is familiar with singing anthems. As Clive, the patriarch of this outbound world, introduces his family, we may even feel a sense of longing for a time when everyone knew their place and stayed in it. As severe as the punishments are for those who stray from the systemic beliefs that shape their roles, there is a kind of attraction to remaining within boundaries. On stage, these boundaries are manifested by the very bodies of the characters themselves, as actors play roles against their gender, age and race, making their foiled desires visible from the onset of the play. As the act enfolds, their frustrations become more palpable, as oppressive and unbearable as the heat of the foreign climate. It then becomes evident that they are bounds for each other, keeping their children, spouses, and neighbors in check through family bonds, obligations to conventional morality, and duty to the Empire.

Clive, as head of the family, stands to benefit most from upholding the oppressive values. David Jansen in the role braces his legs apart and strides about the stage commandingly, but his performance is not the pivot around which this first half the play should swivel. Jansen gives Clive a comical, one-dimensional treatment, making him entirely devoid of emotional intelligence. The audience is apt to take no notice of his jingoistic speeches, much like the way we would ignore or giggle at a dull, pompous relative at a family gathering. However, we ought instead to feel the weight of his judgments and control upon the lives of others. Evan Buliung is tremulous and delicate as Betty, Clive’s wife, even as the actor’s tall and strapping frame strains the seams of an oddly constructed virginal white dress. Buliung conveys Betty’s interior conflict at wanting to be consumed by her dreams of romance, and wanting to be a dutiful wife, but shows no sympathy when her son Edward and Ellen, the governess, express similar feelings of unfulfilled desires. Her lack of imagination foreshadows her slow and faltering journey to self-knowledge in the second act. Mrs. Saunders, played by Megan Follows, dressed in a tight bodice and transparent dark skirt is set up as an obvious foil to Betty. Swishing her riding crop through the air, Mrs. Saunders represents the liberated woman, yet it is disappointing that sexualized costumes are used to signal this. Follows also effectively uses body language to switch between the confident Mrs. Saunders and the timid Ellen; who is braver at communicating her love to Betty than Betty is at acknowledging it. Blair Williams plays Harry Bagley as the classic adventurous explorer, but still manages to imbue the part with a sense of vulnerability. Betty’s mother, Maud, is played by Yanna McIntosh who intones her dictums with a wonderful irony, yet is apt not to deviate from that same tone of bitterness. As Edward, Ann-Marie MacDonald gives us marvelous facial expressions that show the confusion of a young boy whose existence is constantly prescribed. Ben Carlson is uproarious as Joshua Clive’s black manservant, and is also able to show Joshua’s psychological conflict of being condemning of his masters while simultaneously enthralled by them, so that his rage at the end of the act is an inevitable result of his internalized self-loathing turned outward. His appearance behind screens and tea-trays, though, means that his baleful looks are sometimes lost to the audience, but when he can be noticed Carlson’s hovering background presence adds depth both to the stage and the scene.

Sets are straightforward and the stage’s shallow depth means the actors have little to hide behind; compounding the immediacy of the characters’ emotions. During the flogging of servants, which takes place off-stage, the bright afternoon light appears screened by the wide blinds, but there is not so much a sense of horror at the violence as one of claustrophobia. The cast maintains such a riotous energy during the play’s comic scenes, that the quieter moments flag. Such moments could be injected with tension, such as the awkward pauses when the women are sitting together and it is obvious they have nothing to say to each other without the presence of the men. The tension between Caroline Saunders and Betty, for instance is not explored or built up to. These characters’ relationships are not credible, and their inability to connect with each other as parents, children, partners and lovers demonstrates how they have been sublimated under social prescriptions. Yet when characters are shown to be incapable of relating in the ways which make us most redeemable as humans, there is a risk of them becoming caricatures. Perhaps this is difficulty of epic theatre’s distancing effect, which sacrifices believability in order to critique ideology. A highly sensitive and careful cast would be needed to find the balance between the play’s provocative satire and its theatricality.

Making a great leap forward of a hundred years, the characters of the first act have only aged a quarter of century in the second act. The Empire has dissolved and they now living in London. Time and distance has not left them unchanged, as characters have new bodies and voices. Victoria, a mere doll in the first act, is now played by McIntosh, who is more shaded and hesitant in this role, playing Vicky as articulate and engaged when she is with her friends, but bewildered and appalled by her husband’s overflow of self-justifications. Follows now plays Vicky’s close friend and ally Lin, a raucous and independent single mother who can now proudly proclaim her hatred of men without fear of social stigma. Yet such hatred sounds dogmatic when it’s voiced with such lack of self-consciousness, though it’s perhaps to be expected, given that she was forced into marriage in a her previous life as Ellen. Buliung as the grown-up Edward is diffident but honest about himself and his needs. That same honesty is apparent in his boyfriend, Gerry, with Carlson in the role. Vicky’s husband, Martin, played by Williams, dressed in a cream sweater and cordoroy jacket, appears harmless and bookish. But like the philandering Harry Badgey, Martin’s complete lack of awareness to how power implicates sexuality is insidious. Jansen is exuberant as Cathy, Vicky’s five-year-old daughter, and the large actor’s tumbling and skipping is performs a child’s magical universe. Betty, now older and in the process of leaving her husband, is kinder and much chattier. Her monologue detailing her own sexual awakening is moving, but whether deliberate or not, she comes across as prim and affected, her emotions behind a smiling veneer. The performances of the second act are more naturalistic, but the scenes move just as briskly as the plays’ first act, with little consideration given to pauses and suggestive, silent self-realizations.

The dim lighting during the summoning scene means that the facial expressions of Lin, Vicky and Edward are missed out by the audience. The darkness continues through their giggle, abortive orgy and the soldier’s abrupt appearance. The park ought to feel like the hub of the second act; it’s where Lin and Vicky take their children to play, where Gerry roams at night looking for sexual encounters. Quite often, however, the set feels merely cluttered with children’s toys, an enormous swing, a chain-link fence that furthers divides the already shallow stage. As the characters move towards a tentative contentment in their untraditional living arrangements, the audience has a vision of complicated individuals who may not have found any definite answers to the questions of how to better relate to each other, but who continue to pursue the elusive cloud nine state. As ghostly characters from the first act appear to admonish Betty, we’re reminded of how much freer she is, yet with that freedom comes confusion and loss. Betty’s embracing of her past self is not entirely satisfying, perhaps because it feels like a symbolic gesture, and it’s doubtful whether or not she has truly made peace with her past. However, that doubt does not necessarily detract from what we take from the play, as it may prompt us to wonder if we have similarly accepted our ancestors and our distorted histories.

This is a play that is about families, friendship, lovers and everything-in-between. It therefore calls for an ensemble whose various styles and energies can cohere, which does not necessarily mean that there must be consistency or uniformity, but that there should be reverberations, echoes, threads. The lingering silence of one character should contain a trace of another’s gesture, the distance between a mother and daughter should be reflected in the falling intonation of a governess. The play’s doubling and cross-gendered roles makes it even more imperative that such traces can be detected, but on this stage they are not often discernible. Such traces and gestural ‘playing-off’ could be used to reinforce Churchill’s motifs, which are not easily grasped. The play’s muffled commentary on the legacies of colonialism, the hauntings of history and the irresolute sphere of social and personal relationships is manifested in the appearance of ghosts and voices and repeated figures that convey the sense of a past that is not yet finished with, that insists on seeping through our illusions of progress. Progress not merely in terms of social change and sexual liberation, but also in regards to self-revelation and the compassion we extend to others.

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