Caryl Churchill’s 1979 play Cloud Nine had its origins in a Joint Stock workshop on “sexual politics” and has acquired over the years an almost unassailable reputation as the outstanding theatre piece of its time on that subject.
Thea Sharrock’s revival at the Almeida does little to dent that reputation. What you do feel watching it after so long a time is how formally and structurally unadventurous most contemporary playwriting is – the revival of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros at the Royal Court has had a similar impact.
Taking two polarised social situations – British Imperial Africa in the 1870s and a London park in 1979, though the time difference is only 25 years for the characters – Churchill brilliantly created narrative and emotional textures from a mosaic of sketch-like short scenes.
The colonial administrator, Clive (of Africa), is played by James Fleet as a brutish nincompoop whose best friend Harry Bagley (Tobias Menzies) is a sort of gormless sex magnet for Clive’s wife, son, servant and governess. The last is a lesbian with the hots for Clive’s wife (played by a man, Bo Poraj), while Clive’s son (played by a woman, Nicola Walker) is curiously open to suggestion. And it’s all just a tad darker than Hairspray.
Harry is an explorer who thinks of white women where no white women have been thought of before. This skewed archaism in the language is subsumed after the interval in more facile, flexible modes of expression, so that where to live and whom to share with is discussed in more relaxed terms, all guilt removed, even during that still startling speech of Betty (Nicola Walker again; in the first act the character was played by a tiny doll) about the joys of masturbation.
Mark Letheren’s submissive houseboy in the first act becomes a predatory homosexual in the second, while Sophie Stanton’s outstanding double of governess and harassed lesbian illustrates perfectly the two sides of the repression coin. With Tobias Menzies doing a similar job with the furtiveness of sex, Sharrock’s company fully inhabits the playfulness and duality that made Max Stafford-Clark’s original production so delightful and influential.
The only cross-playing in the second act is that of Cathy, a grumpy self-centred child whom James Fleet reveals as the ridiculous Clive reincarnate. The play resounds with such witty echoes and carefully finessed acting. And it all looks very striking, too, on Peter McKintosh’s raised disc of a stage with evocative, silhouetted backgrounds in Peter Mumford’s lighting and judiciously plotted sound effects by Gregory Clarke.