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

Cloud Nine, currently on at the Courtyard Theatre at DUT in Durban and masterfully directed by Allen Auld, is a delicious romp through time resembling the Jerry Springer show … in crinolines.

This fabulous, fast-paced quirky drama is a biting and hilarious social commentary challenging and laughing at social conventions, family relationships, gender stereotyping…. and sex. In fact, lots and lots of sex. The odd moment when not putting sex under the spotlight, it takes a dig at colonialism, precocious children, double standards, bigotry, incest, identity – in fact most social structures which we hold dear. Packaged as farcical debauchery, this astute script gives performers and audiences plenty of food for thought.

To make difficult issues more problematic, playwright Caryl Churchill inverts expectations – adults play children, blacks play whites, men play women and women play boys. Nothing is as it seems. Nothing is what you would expect. Scratch the surface of an apparently well-manicured society, and an endless torrent of “subversive” behaviour and complications reveal themselves. The opening night audience of mostly students shrieked with absolute delight and often total horror as each unexpected relationship unravelled.

The Drama Studies Department at DUT must surely be among the most visionary, effective, industrious and productive drama departments in the country. They work their students hard – pushing them way beyond their comfort zone - and get great results. They choose productions which are seldom staged at a tertiary level and in so doing get unexpected performances when the young actors rise to the challenge.

At no point do they patronise their students by offering them safe options – so their work gets more interesting with every production. DUT should be proud of what happens in the unassuming Courtyard Theatre with incredible regularity. Already it is the second production of the year for the Drama Department. Cloud Nine comes hot on the heels of Alan Ayckbourn Confusions – meaning the students at DUT have staged two major productions, both comedies, in one month - literally within weeks of opening for the new academic year, which is an astonishing feat!

Cloud Nine is traditionally set partly in a British Colony in the Victorian era, which examines the relationships involved in colonization. According to the website eNotes: Act one is set in the nineteenth century in an African country ruled by Britain. Churchill satirizes the repressive nature of the Victorian family, the rigidity of narrowly prescribed gender roles, and the phenomenon whereby oppressed peoples in colonized countries take on the identity of the colonizers. Act two traditionally takes place in London 100 years later with mostly the same characters, who have aged only 25 years. In this act, Churchill explores such topics as women’s liberation, gay liberation, and the sexual revolution, all of which were prominent social movements in Britain, as well as the United States, in the 1970s. Director Allen Auld has set act two in 2007 Durban, giving the second act a local flavour and contemporary feel.

Cloud Nine is a true ensemble piece for eight actors – there are no lead roles. Every character gets the lion’s share of the action in a carefully-constructed script. Performers change character from act one to act two – in some instances this involves changing gender and making huge jumps in age. Except for a very few muffled lines, diction was clear and accents were credible throughout.

Lungani Ngcobo was a convincing “Clive” (a uniformed white Victorian colonial administrator and family patriarch). He carried his role with weight and dignity and managed to transform into “Cathy” (a manipulative six year old girl) for the second act. Facing similar challenges and coping magnificently is one of the evening’s shining stars Shona Johnson who in act one plays the impossible Edward (a spoilt Victorian boy in a sailor suit) and morphs into a gracious and overwhelmed older mother in act two. I was also impressed with Mary Sikhakhane who was the beady-eyed bonneted mother-in-law, Maud, in act one and the elegant grown daughter Victoria in act two. She has a Nicole Kidman grace and timeless elegance about her. And whatever she wears looks fabulous.

I adored Sphindile Nzimande who plays the headstrong but kind-hearted widow in the colonies, and the no-nonsense Mum, “Lin” in the second act. Both her characters were utterly convincing and she has a great sense of comic timing. There is a scene-stealing moment in act one involving “Clive” cavorting under her ample skirts. Her face is articulation personified! Ntokozo Nxumalo made a dashing wife Betty (and looks fab in a frock!), and evoked the perfect measure of pity and pathos as the jilted heart-sore Edward in act two. Bongani Tutshana played the difficult and dark role of Joshua the servant (interestingly the only black character in the play). Wonderboy Kakole was contrite and wide-eyed as the much-chased explorer Harry Bagley, and Smangele Khawula was a suitably bashful and coy governess.

Mention must be made of Tina le Roux’s effective and clean set and DUT’s swish new cyclorama which provides photo-perfect backdrops like a giant screensaver. Dana Hadjiev provides musical accompaniment. She is a skilled pianist and could have been included more.

Cloud Nine is a real fun evening out. Although it tackles some seriously heavy issues, they are shrouded in frothy action and saucy comedy. Leave the prudes at home, though, there are some rude words and lots and lots of innuendo. Two casts alternate nightly. We saw the first cast tonight – they are on again on Saturday. Cast two are doing Thursday and Friday. Bouquets to all concerned – an interesting piece and a great achievement!

Cloud Nine runs in the Courtyard Theatre, DUT, Mansfield Rd, until March 24, nightlyat 19h00. Tickets R30 at the door (discounts for students and Senior Citizens). Further details from the Drama Studies Dept on 031 204 2194. - Illa Thompson




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