You might expect time to have been unkind to Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine. Written in 1978, it contrasts the sexual mores of that time with those of the Victorian era by setting the first act in 19th-century colonial Africa and the second in 1970s London. Today, of course, that “contemporary” second act also presents us with a bygone era: some of the 1970s hang-ups seem almost as dated as those that afflicted the Victorian characters, and its take on sexual politics is very much of its period. Yet the play has such comic élan and is so sharply observant that it more than stands the test of time.
If anything, the new perspective adds to it. Churchill’s mischievous depiction of sexual confusion is very funny and her analysis of oppression is astute, but, watching the play now, you realise that she also pinpoints emotional truths that hold good whatever the social conventions. It’s playful, it’s provocative, yet at the same time it is compassionate. Thea Sharrock’s revival is acted with tremendous brio, but is surprisingly touching too.
Churchill takes audacious liberties with plot and character to emphasise her points. Actors cross gender, race and age, swap characters and cheat time. We begin on a verandah in colonial Africa, with a family tableau: husband, wife, children, grandmother, governess and servant. Absurdly overdressed for the suffocating heat, they strike a stiff-backed pose and sing a patriotic song as the Union Jack is raised. But closer inspection reveals this outpost of the Empire to be riddled with confusion. Betty,
the wife, is played by a man; Edward, the teenage son, is played by a woman; and Joshua, the black servant, is played by a white actor. This sounds unbearably tricksy;
in fact it neatly highlights the roles that society expects the characters to play.
Betty, in particular, is wonderfully funny. Bo Poraj’s performance is precisely observed: laced into a corset and bustle, he flutters, twitters and lowers his eyelids modestly, all the while lusting hungrily after a family friend. And though the paterfamilias (James Fleet) strides about and barks orders, he increasingly loses control. The natives revolt; passions run riot; gay and adulterous fumbles break out all over the household, all observed by the tartly disapproving grandmother (a beautifully pitched performance from Joanna Scanlan). It takes a public flogging and a grisly forced wedding to restore the appearance of order.
Cut to Act Two and, by dramatic licence, some of those same characters find themselves living in 1970s London, reeling in the face of the sexual revolution. Women can vote, get a job and demand sexual fulfilment; gay men and lesbians can forge relationships; cheesecloth has replaced corsets. But emotional confusion still reigns. Couples gay and straight wrangle over commitment, women juggle child rearing and feminist doctrine and pass on mixed messages to their children. Liberation proves almost as hard to live with as oppression; old values die hard.
Churchill overloads the cart by continuing her parallel theme of colonial oppression through references to Northern Ireland. But there are some delightfully funny scenes here: in one, a drunken trio embarks on a moonlit ritual to invoke the female goddess; in another a would-be liberal husband (Tobias Menzies) ties himself in knots as he attempts to tell his wife what to do without oppressing her.
Sharrock’s excellent cast rises to the comedy, bringing out the characters’ tortured logic and conflicting desires. But while performances are comically precise, they are also humane. Nicola Walker is particularly touching as the older, independent Betty, who finally forgives her younger self in a scene that is typical of this impish drama.