Preview: Cloud Nine

Have you been sitting at home, worrying that the next month will turn you into a mind-numbed revision recluse? Fear not! Before you lock yourself away and surround yourself with books and essential supplies of chocolate, make sure you get to the Assembly Rooms for what promises to be this term’s most outrageous production. Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine is a funny yet thought-provoking black comedy about sexual politics and social relationships that claims to be both obscene and hilarious at the same time. The play deals with issues of gender, race and sexuality in two very different eras. Here, first-time director Justin Murray and producer Zoe Ogahara give the Bubble the low-down on what makes the play so special:

First and foremost, why did you choose ‘Cloud Nine’?

Justin Murray: Something about it clicked with me – the hilariously incongruous outrageousness of it, coupled with quite a profound, serious edge. It also went completely against the way I’d been brought up, which made it inherently attractive.

Zoe Ogahara: Cloud Nine was at first for me a thoroughly entertaining read. It is not like anything I have seen before in Durham and is something I think people will enjoy watching, if perhaps be slightly disturbed, but in a positive way.

Can you explain a bit about the format of the play?

ZO: Without giving too much away, the acts are simply set in different places and times. The first act is set in Africa in colonial times, whereas the second act takes place in Britain in the 1970s. However, the characters from the first act have aged only 25 years.

What are the difficulties of multi-casting in the play, and how have you overcome them?

JM: In some ways it made things easier: the cast became small and tight-knit rather than unmanageably large! We spent time discussing the similarities and differences between the two characters. Whenever we did exercises or improvisations in rehearsal, I found it useful to do all the practices twice, once as one character and once as the other. It forced the cast to put across a clear difference between the two roles.

ZO: This has not been as difficult as it sounds at all. Naturally, there were some actors who were brilliant in one part and perhaps not quite right for the other, but we found such a great cast in the end, I could not be more pleased with them for both roles.

How have you managed the huge time jump in the plot and made sure that the audience will understand the different time periods?

JM: This is one of the most fun bits! But for the unity of the themes, the two acts work at counterpoint, and should feel like very different beasts. Everything in the second act should feel a world away from the first: the set, the lighting, the hair, the costumes. The music is also doing a lot of work to set the scene. And the text itself does a lot of work to intensify the contrast.

ZO: Actually the fact that the two time periods are so far apart helps us make a clear distinction between them. Most important is probably how the characters act towards each other, the ways in which they regard and feel for each other.

How have you tackled some of the more controversial elements of the play, such as actors playing different genders or ethnicities?

JM: Playing different gender roles just takes practice, and a lot of thinking – because none of the character’s speech, movements, mannerisms, relationships, and reactions will feel natural to the actor. The ethnic thing is more complex: a white actor is playing a black servant. Like everything in this play, it’s done for a point: the character in question has denied his own culture in order to serve his Western masters. The cross-ethnicity is a visual symbol of this. This quasi-brainwashing is what we focused on in developing the character, rather than trying to ‘sound African’, or anything like that – it would just end up sounding silly.

ZO: It would be doing Churchill a huge disservice to veil any of the more risqué parts of Cloud Nine, they are all in there for a reason, so nothing has been omitted. It has been a fascinating process with the actors to work out ‘what’ we understand to be male, female, gay, straight, black, white, British or from wherever. The actors have been really sensitive to it which I think the audience will see.

What is your favourite part of the play?

JM: The fight scenes, and the drunken orgy scene. They’re so much fun to direct! But that’s as many spoilers as you’re getting out of me…

ZO: Without any hesitation, the drunken orgy scene in the park, it is so ridiculous and has been so much fun in rehearsals. There is the best one-liner in it.

Cloud Nine runs from the 26th-28th April at the Assembly Rooms. Tickets are available in advance from

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