Clouds by Michael Frayn

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BBC 7, 16 September 2008
Set in Cuba in the mid-1970s, Clouds concerns a pair of British journalists – Owen Shorter (Dinsdale Landen) and Myra Hill (Morag Hood) – in pursuit of soft news stories about the country. They embark on a picaresque series of adventures, debate about their respective partners back in England, fall in love and end up bickering with one another. On their way they encounter Budge (Don Fellows), an American academic writing his latest book on the country, as well as numerous Cubans, both English and non-English speakers.


This play is a farcical comedy making great play out of the English abroad, who see only what they want to see, and make little or no attempt to engage with the local cultures. The same also applies to Budge who, although apparently sympathetic to Fidel Castro’s regime, is always on the lookout for evidence of political activity, which blinds him to what takes place in front of his eyes. Clouds is a study in obsession: the protagonists resemble Ben Jonson’s ‘humours’ in their myopic preoccupations and their inability to adapt to changed circumstances. Shorter is always on the lookout for a ‘story’ while missing his wife and children back home; Myra’s world is governed by the conventions of romantic fiction, while Budge’s academic/political preoccupations render him insensitive to people’s emotions. All three of them meander through a world in a semi-catatonic state, bouncing off one another without the ability to connect either emotionally or intellectually. Frayn shows that these are the kind of people who invariably cause diplomatic rifts between nations.


The late Dinsdale Landen was ideally suited to the role of Shorter. His languid style of delivery, complete with strangulated vowels and an underlying sneer, suggested someone full of self-importance, who had no idea what a fool he was. Every observation he made about Cuba revealed how he hated the natives because they just weren’t English. Morag Hood had a more thankless task as Myra in portraying a sexual predator with a penchant for romance (aren’t these qualities contradictory?) Her tone of voice suggested world-weariness; she really hated being abroad. The two actors formed a comic partnership as they repeatedly tried and failed to cope with an unfamiliar situation.


Matthew Walters’s 1987 production unfolded at a breathless pace, allowing full rein for the cast to show off their comic capabilities as well as confirming Frayn as a major comic talent, a suitable heir to Ben Jonson.