Though Caryl Churchill’s 1979 play is a key work in feminist drama, it covers more ground than women’s right to equality.
Whereas her later masterpiece Top Girls revolves around the conflicts and dilemmas between women’s career and family commitments, Cloud Nine concentrates on sexual relationships of all kinds, but also draws an analogy between gender and racial politics.
Director Thea Sharrock (who made her name with a highly successful production of Top Girls in 2000) brings all the issues into tight focus while avoiding didacticism in a thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking show.
Again like Top Girls, Cloud Nine is very much a game of two halves, the first historical, the second contemporary, with overlapping characters and themes between the two. The action is played out on Peter McKintosh’s set of the faade of a house with verandah and artificial grass backed by a white-cloud-filled blue sky the general effect is of a doll’s house where a charade is to be performed.
Act One takes places in a British colony in Africa in the nineteenth century, where all manner of subversive behaviour threatens the traditional/repressive Victorian moral code. Here James Fleet’s administrator Clive of Africa? seems to rule his household with the authority with which he rules the local community, as a ‘benevolent patriarch’.
But his apparently submissive wife Betty (Bo Poraj) is having an affair with rugged explorer Harry Bagley (Tobias Menzies), who has also made sexual conquests of Clive’s young effeminate son Edward (Nicola Walker) and native servant Joshua (Mark Letheren). While governess Ellen (Sophie Stanton) proclaims her lesbian feelings towards Betty, Clive himself is having it off with independent widow Mrs Saunders (also played by Stanton) all this under the disapproving watchful eye of his mother-in-law Maud (Joanna Scanlan). Meanwhile, the natives are revolting.
Act Two takes place in London in 1979, but for the characters only 25 years have elapsed. In this ‘liberated’ society, Betty (now played by Walker) has left Clive, while Edward (now played by Poraj) has split up with his promiscuous gay partner Gerry (Letheren). Edward goes to live with his sister Victoria (Scanlan) represented by a doll in Act One! who has left her unfaithful husband Martin (Menzies) for her lesbian lover Lin (Stanton), single parent of tomboyish young girl Cathy (Fleet). But does all this freedom bring happiness?
It’s a confusing, complicated, mixed-up, ambiguous world Churchill has concocted but then that is the point: she is suggesting that there are no hard and fast rules that can be applied to our sexual identities, so rigidly enforcing rules and conventions will not work. Open relationships are better than covert hypocrisy. The trouble is Churchill’s optimistic view of the post-sixties sexual revolution of women’s and gay liberation seems a little nave now. The dwindling power of discrimination and prejudice in our more tolerant, permissive society is great but arguably the holy grail of personal freedom has led to an excessive emphasis on individual rights at the expense of family and social cohesion.
However, Cloud Nine‘s radical reassessment of sexual (and colonial) politics is very cleverly done. While Act One is a hilarious parody of stiff-upper-lip British Empire there are so many funny lines, such as Harry’s words to Betty, ‘You have been thought of where no white woman has been thought of before’ Act Two is played straight (if that’s the right word for this gender-bending drama). There is a clear parallel drawn between the suppression of women and non-whites though the colonial connection is only tenuously maintained in the second act in the ghostly shape of Lin’s soldier brother killed in Northern Ireland.
Gender and racial stereotypes are challenged brilliantly by having, variously, a man playing a woman, a woman playing a boy, a man playing a girl and a white man playing a black man, drawing attention to the fact that our ‘roles’ in society are culturally conditioned. And the links between the different characters that the actors double up as are equally illuminating in this uniformly strongly performed production appropriately there is equality throughout the cast.
Fleet’s transformation or infantilization – from the chauvinistic arrogance of Clive casually shooting natives to Cathy playing with her toy gun brings out an essential immaturity. In a neat dovetailing of roles, the younger ill at ease ‘male’ Betty played by Poraj is superceded by Walker’s older empowered woman, while Walker’s boy Edward continually told not to behave like a sissy grows into Poraj’s young man confident in his gay sexuality.
Menzies’ duplicitous Harry is ‘replaced’ by the manipulative Martin, Stanton inhabits the three strong-willed unconventional women Ellen/Mrs Saunders/Lin, Scanlan evolves from the Queen Victoria lookalike moralizing Maud to the open-minded Victoria, and Letheren changes from the alarmingly ‘whiter than white’ Joshua, who seems to reject his own background in aping his colonial superiors, to the equally rootless Gerry who reconsiders his lack of commitment.
The overall positive development represented in the play between the two acts is movingly embodied in the final image of the older Betty embracing her younger self, a sign of finding one’s true identity at last.