Cloud 9 by Caryl Churchill features lesbianism, bisexual orgies, miscegenation, gay beat sex and pedophilia. When it was first staged in 1979 the play was considered shocking.
Twenty-five years later, director Damien Millar still thinks it’s pretty edgy.
I think our idea of what shocking is has actually changed since 1979, Millar says. Shocking has come to mean a kind of cruelty these days, particularly within artistic circles. A lot of the plays that were in fashion in Britain in particular in the 1990s -¦ are about real physical cruelty and that’s what’s seen to be shocking.
But what I find most shocking still about this play 25 years on is its humanity.
Act One is set in 1880s colonial Africa, as a British family, a sexually voracious explorer, their lesbian governess and black servant cope with bubbling infidelities and an increasingly hostile indigenous population. Act Two is set in England in 1979, a world in which gay relationships and the rise of feminism have transformed people’s lives, but for the characters it is only 25 years later.
All of which makes the play fascinating enough, except the text also specifies cross-gender and cross-race casting in order to make theatrical points about racism and sexual politics.
The young son Edward is played by a girl as he cannot fulfil his father’s masculine expectations. The servant Joshua has become so acculturated to his white employers that he’s played by a white actor. Edward’s little sister is treated like a doll by her parents, so she is played on stage by a dummy.
Millar is taking it one step further.
Nobody, in this country anyway, has ever taken this casting the other way, and looked at what are the possibilities in a modern multicultural society, he says.
Sara [Zwangobani], who is a descendent of Zulu warriors and still has family in Zimbabwe, is playing Edward in the first act and then Lin in the second act.
The casting of her as Edward is kind of doubly delicious, because you have a grown beautiful woman playing a young, unconfident boy who is taught to be the head of his white household, Millar says.
The most suitable casting, however, seems to be of Millar himself as director, whose professional life reveals strong affinities with playing multiple roles, and being seen as something that he is not.
Millar’s opinions on theatre are often mistaken for theatre critic Stephen Dunne’s -“ because Dunne is Millar’s boyfriend. On a professional level he wears many hats, as a director, writer and dramaturge, but he’s also been a porn actor, an experience which only recently found its way back onto his CV.
For all this, Millar’s not entirely fearless.
I think there’s a kind of fear of this play too, because it’s such a classic, I think people are scared of fucking it up, he says. I’m terrified of fucking it up of course, but goddamn it, sometimes you’ve just got to jump in.
Cloud 9 is showing at Darlinghurst Theatre from 8 September to 2 October. Phone 8356 9987 for bookings.