In sports, a game that significantly shifts in momentum after half time is often referred to as a “tale of two halves”. This trite Dickens reference, though, perfectly applies to Sam Oshins’ production of Cloud Nine. Caryl Churchill’s play follows a family from Victorian Africa to 70’s London, exploring race, gender and sexuality through Brechtian techniques. While Oshins and his cast believably and entertainingly present the London side of the narrative, Act 1 suffers from tonal inconsistencies and technical issues.
Let’s start, since I’m already using cliché’s, at the beginning. Cloud Nine opens with a song, because Brecht. However, in this production, the singing of the actors was accompanied by a recorded instrumental that was low on quality and high on volume, almost drowning out important exposition.
That moment is emblematic of a lack of technical polish that applies to the whole act. The set largely consists of a series of white panels, drawn on to form an image of an imposing manor house. However, the panels didn’t line up well, making the image somewhat disjointed, and not in a purposeful way. The rest of the set was spare, but somehow, transitions still took several minutes for simple adjustments.
Performances are tricky to analyze for this portion of the show. Though the whole cast showed competency, several moments, especially moments of physical intimacy, were played as comic gags within scenes that were otherwise quite naturalistic (besides the cross-casting). Those jumps, while funny in themselves, interrupted the flow of the action and confused the tone of the production.
Some of the cast certainly stood out, though. Mishia Leggett nailed the physicality of Edward, the young boy she portrayed, and got his desires across before speaking them. Helena Jacques-Morton managed to be comic, but in a way that felt more true to the scene. And Callum Douglas displayed an intimate awareness of the archetype he was representing in the figure of the family patriarch, Clive.
Now, to stretch the metaphor, we move from Paris to London. The stand-outs in Act 2 were the same as those in Act 1, largely. Leggett switched into the mother’s role, and carried it with subtlety and distinction. Jacques-Morton played Lin, a lesbian, switching her physicality drastically, but her performance remained grounded. And Douglas, in transforming into a little girl, became adorable, precocious and utterly hilarious.
But otherwise, the second half was utterly dissimilar to the first. Following the change in time and place, the set changed. The ugly backdrop and revolving set of furniture was replaced by a park scene, which solved the problem of the scene transitions and added a couple, very cool, hanging swings. The songs in this half were sung without accompaniment, which meant I could hear the voices, and the, admittedly, meandering plot was grounded by echoes of dialogue from the first act.
My only real criticism of this portion of the show is that it didn’t “do” anything. As a Brechtian, political, piece, Churchill’s goal was not to make me feel anything, but to think something. And this is where it shows it’s age. Churchill’s representations of nontraditional sexualities and identities are still provocative, though in different ways. Gerry (Louis Catliff)’s monologues were certainly effective glimpses into a very different headspace. But a scene containing a ritual orgy is hardly broadening or shocking in 2016, and at its worst is an oversimplified view of homo- or bisexuality.
That doesn’t mean that Cloud Nine is no longer worth seeing. Watching Churchill construct, deconstruct and reconstruct a vision of society is highly interesting. And watching performers grapple with her, at times, utterly bizarre, dialogue was often entertaining. But a play is more than one half, and if all the creative attention is paid to just one act, the production ends up being off kilter, out of whack, or unbalanced. Even a tale of two halves is one, single tale.