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CLOUD NINE (article first published : 2007-03-23)

This unusual and quirky comedy by contemporary British writer Caryl Churchill, directed by Allen Auld, is a very ambitious undertaking which works in many ways and is entertaining albeit confusing at times. In addition, there are two full casts who perform on alternate nights, no mean undertaking for any Director.

Act One takes place in the garden of a colonial administrator somewhere in Victorian Africa against a backdrop of a deep blue cloudy sky, a garden bench and an effective green floor covering. It satirises the repressive nature of the Victorian family, the rigidity of narrowly prescribed gender roles, a prime example being the young son's wishing to play with a doll causing such havoc. This does not prevent blatant infidelity being portrayed in the most humorous way, not made any easier by the immaturity and laughter of the, mostly, young students in the audience

The Director's programme notes detail the playwright’s trademark trends to cast adults as children and to cast across gender, viz. men playing women and women playing men, to achieve hilarious results. Presumably this is why Allen Auld has cast some of the students, across gender lines. This does create great humour but can also be confusing.

The play probes the sensitive areas of sexual politics, social identity and colonial and gender oppression. The play originally featured a White cast but due to the demographics of the Drama Department's student body, this cast is Black. On the whole this works very well but the articulation of a couple of the members of the cast needs work. After all, they are performing arts students and there is great competition when they reach the outside world. That said, some of the cast are very good indeed.

Act Two is set 25 years later in the Botanic Gardens, Durban, 2007, with a park bench and a large sunshade. In this act, contemporary issues such as women's liberation, gay liberation and the sexual revolution are explored. Where a female role was taken by a man in the first Act, a woman now performs the role and, of course, the children in the first Act are now performed by adults.

In the opening night cast, Clive, a colonial administrator, was performed by Lungani Ngcobo, Betty, his wife - played by a man - was Ntokozo Nxumalo, who was superb, a real showstealer with very good moves and facial expressions. He acted as the adult son Edward, in Act Two, a remarkable change of character and now with a nice stage presence. Although Lungani Ngcobo appeared to be rather wooden in Act One, this was I'm sure intentional as he was so very British and made his portrayal of Cathy, a young girl of six in Act Two all the more of a change. One could happily strangle that naughty child.

Shona Johnson was the wife Betty in Act Two, a complete change of character portrayal in every way from Clive's son Edward as a child, again a precocious brat, very nicely acted, in Act One. Bonga Tutshana as Joshua, Clive's Black servant in Act One was rather wooden but came into his own in Act Two as Gerry, Edward's lover, in Act Two, a very natural and credible performance.

Mary Sikhakhane, Betty's mother, Maud, in Act One became Victoria (Betty's daughter) in Act Two, fine performances with excellent enunciation in both characters. A clever directorial move was to cast a rag doll as Victoria as the baby in Act One. Another student with excellent pronunciation and acting is Sphindile Nzimande, as Mrs Saunders, a widow in Act One and as Lin, Cathy's mother in Act Two. Making up the remainder of the eight member cast are Smangele Khawula as Edward's Governess, Ellen, in both acts and Wonderboy Kakole as Harry Bagley, an explorer in Act One and Martin, Victoria's husband in Act Two. His portrayal of Harry's infatuation and desire for Clive in the first act was superb.

This ambitious undertaking was most entertaining and showcased much potential talent. The cast must, however, be taught to hold the dialogue during the laughter of the audience, maybe not an easy task with the continued laughter of the immature audience at times.

Cloud Nine can be seen at the Courtyard Theatre, Durban University of Technology (the former Technikon Natal), Mansfield Rd, from March 21 to 24. Tickets R30 available at the door (discounts for students and Senior Citizens). Further details on 031 204 2194. – Maurice Kort




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