Cloud Nine is a two-act play by British playwright Caryl Churchill. It premiered in 1979 and explores ideas of colonialism, gender, and family. The postmodern elements of Cloud Nine can pose challenges to actors and directors attempting to stage the play. Act 1 takes place in British colonial Africa during the Victorian period. Right away, Churchill deconstructs identity with her casting guidelines. The play centers on the family of Clive, a white British administrator. His wife, Betty, is meant to be played by a man; his young son, Edward, is meant to be played by an adult woman; his black servant is meant to be played by a white actor; and his daughter, Victoria, is simply a doll. Victoria is quite literally a prop on stage, which comments on the nature of female children as figurative props in the family unit. In order for Joshua, the black servant, to fit in with Clive's family, he must reject his people and act white, hence the choice of casting a white actor. The nontraditional casting subverts ideas of gender, sexuality, race, and class. The audience is left questioning their own attitudes on these topics.
Act 2 jumps in time and is set in 1979 England. Betty, Edward, and Victoria appear—but for them, only twenty-five years have passed. Furthermore, the actors switch characters in the second act: Betty is played by a woman, Edward is played by a man, and an actor steps into the role of Victoria, as she is no longer a doll. Having to switch characters can be a challenge for actors, especially when this character has already been portrayed by someone else earlier in the play. The director is faced with how to make the time jump and character switches clear to the audience.
Churchill's disintegration of the linear passage of time and her deconstruction of the standard family unit and gender norms are what make her play distinct, but they can also pose challenges to actors and directors who are tasked with portraying these elements in a clear way to the audience.
This play can be related to two "-isms" - postcolonialism and postmodernism. Both are related in the way that they challenge accepted norms and deconstruct relationships and suggest new possible approaches to study.
What is particularly postmodern about this play is the way that it deconstructs and problematises gender stereotypes. For example, Edward likes to play with dolls, even though he is told that this is not an acceptable pastime. Mrs. Saunders shows that she is a woman who is able to enjoy sex for its own sake. Such examples as these encourage the audience to question given assumptions relating to gender.
Act II further reinforces this escape from narrow, rigidly defined gender roles as certain characters strike out into creating their own gender identity without reference to societal norms. Thus concepts such as homosexuality and learning the pleasure of autoeroticism are explored and presented as valid alternatives to other, more traditional, gender roles.
Sociologically, new forms of social structures are presented in Act II as well. For example the family in Act I is presented in its Victorian, nuclear form. Act II presents us with a gay man living with two women and their two children. Such presentations force us to question how we define the concept of a "family" and force us to conceed that in our postmodern world such modern structures are not absolute and the only way.