Some people go to church to hear a sermon. Others go to the theater. Oh, that the preaching be good!
In 1979, when Caryl Churchill wrote Cloud 9, England needed a whole lot of preaching. The Sex Pistols tried to shock the system, but to little effect; punk was quickly neutralized in the froth of New Wave. Churchill’s play articulates the punks’ self-righteous repulsion at the hypocritical mores of British society, but in the smarter, more subversive guise of farce. To paraphrase the poet Philip Larkin, your empire fucks you up.
The play has two wildly disparate acts, both loaded with bad talk and worse escapades. We join a typical Englishman and his brood somewhere in the heart of Africa in 1880. Queen Victoria is on the throne and it is to her that the patriarch Clive (Andrew Huff) dedicates his travails in the bush.
Indeed, Clive’s family is quite a doozy. His wife, Betty, is so much his possession that she might as well be played by a man, which she is (Chris Roady). His daughter, Victoria, is literally a rag doll toted around by a peevish governess (Lisa Betz) with a Cockney accent. But save your pity for little Edward, such a mincing spastic of a boy in his sailor suit that he too deserves a transsexual portrayal (Shelly Gaza).
One summer night, the explorer Harry Bagley (Eddie Collins) arrives, fresh from a bracing trip down a river fraught with danger. A wicked man, this Bagley. Given any spare moment, his libido gets the best of the very propriety Clive admires so much. If young Edward isn’t available for an ongoing initiation in naughty num-nums, Bagley likes to invite Clive’s manservant, an African so alienated from his people that he’s played by a white man (Aaron Moore), into the barn for a shag.
But Clive is no saint himself. He has his own sideline gig. The widow Sanders (also played by Lisa Betz) is a regular guest in his home and he’s a regular visitor up her skirt. Clive, of course, is such a pompous buffoon that he’s totally oblivious to all the other shenanigans that are ruining his little corner of the empire.
Fans of the Carry On film series or “Blackadder” will feel right at home with the racy dialogue and the ribald melodrama. At an hour and a half, this first act could be the entire play. Perhaps it should’ve been, because the second act is a disaster. Fast-forward a hundred years, although for the characters it’s only 25 years later. Suddenly they’re free to be who they want to be, to do whom they want to do. The action takes place in a London park, where Edward is now a flaming queen living in a dump with a piece of rough trade who likes to get blow jobs from the sort of gents who vote freely for Margaret Thatcher. His sister, Victoria, has taken up with a single mother, Lin. Lin has a lot of attitude, but who wouldn’t if your child (also played by Aaron Moore) was a massive lummox in a Shirley Temple outfit begging for an IV of Ritalin or a knock on the head.
Imagine an instructor in some godforsaken Midlands polytechnic receiving this kind of writing from a student. Imagine the pleasure he would take lining his budgie’s cage with it. Then imagine the protests from the sexual liberators on campus. Oh, to be in England when England really sucked.
Intensifying the wretchedness of the second act are the ill-advised and ill-conceived musical inserts between scenes. Director Gillian Eaton has a trio of actors all gotten up in leather lip-synching punk and New Wave hits from a balcony stage right. Granted, it’s a bit of an improvement on the drawing room ditties she has them sing during the first act. But why bother? The play’s transgressive charge is already long gone. It doesn’t need any sweetener. What it does need is a bit of respect, dated as it is.
Cloud 9 by Caryl Churchill runs in repertory at Wayne State University’s Hilberry Theatre (corner of Cass and Hancock, Detroit) through March 27. For tickets and more information, call the WSU Theatre box office at 313-577-2972.Timothy Dugdale writes about theater and books for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]