Theatre: Every cloud has a sexual lining

Paul Taylor inspects revivals of two plays that were scandals in their day; THEATRE Cloud Nine, Old Vic / Misalliance, Birmingham Rep

It is no disrespect to Caryl Churchill's 1979 play Cloud Nine to say that it now has the air of a period piece, for as Tom Cairns's splendidly acted and designed revival at the Old Vic establishes, this work may be of an era but its provocativeness is not past its sell-by date.

The weird form of the play reflects the intuitive sense many people have that our libidinal development as individuals follows much the same route as our recent collective history. We start out as repressed, guilty, ill- informed Victorians; sexual intercourse, with apologies to Larkin, eternally begins in some platonic version of 1963; and only by painful degrees do we become liberated Seventies erotic experimenters.

Also evocative of the parallel between colonial and sexual oppression, the first act is set among Victorian imperialists in darkest Africa, the second in late 1970s London. Between times, a century has elapsed, but the characters have only aged by 25 years. With figures from the 19th- century world making brief, spectral visits to the park where most of the second half takes place, the play demonstrates that these people are our psychological inheritance. It celebrates the capacity for change, but it does not pretend that the past can be thrown off lightly.

There's a marked difference of tone between the acts, expertly handled here by Cairns and his crack cast. Representing colonial Africa with a beautiful surrealism (a massive ivory tusk rears up, for example, as though it had just gored through the wall), the design offers an ideal background for the coarse cartoon exuberance of the Victorian scenes where we see that it is not just the natives who are restless nor merely the white man's bearing which is erect. Libidos run rampant as the lesbian governess yearns for the administrator's wife who is lusting for his best friend who, in turn, is interfering with his young son and having sex in the stables with his black servant.

To underline that the patriarchal relationships passed off as "natural" are arbitrary and changeable, Churchill stipulates purposefully perverse casting (the black servant is played by a white; the little son by a woman et cetera, et cetera - if Queen Victoria herself were to arrive, performed by a gay, disabled gerbil, you wouldn't turn a hair). For the more serious second half, the parts are re-assigned, always with some thematic point. For example, the excellent Dominic West, all shy sad girlishness and underlying frustration as Betty, the wife of Tim McInnerny's administrator, re-appears in the Seventies as her now grown-up gay son Edward. This young man's suffocating desire to adopt the traditional "female" role in a relationship has alienated his promiscuous lover. Because of the casting, you can see his mother in Edward in a very special sense and this brings home the fact that he gained his stereotyped, soon-to-be exploded view of women from her.

With Edward entering into a polymorphous menage a trois with his sister and her lesbian lover, and with a divorced Betty, now played by an extremely moving Janine Duvitski, rediscovering selfhood through the delights of masturbation, the second half of Cloud Nine can sometimes seem as artificial and engineered as the first. And with 1979 now so far in the past that there will be women voting in this election who weren't born when Churchill wrote the play, you feel that it could stand some of the deconstructive brio she brings to the colonial era. But this play about liberation and its distinction from liberation-in-the-head (Andrew Woodall's Martin is an amusingly conceited example of the latter) still comes over as genuinely liberating.

"Men like conventions because men made them. I didn't make them. I don't like them. I won't keep them. Now, what will you do?" No, not a speech from Cloud Nine, but from Misalliance, a 1910 play by Shaw, revived now in Birmingham by Caroline Eves, which also examines the arbitrariness of much of what we consider natural in sexual politics. One of its characters, for example, says that if marriages were made by getting a blindfolded child to draw out names from a sack "there would be just as high a percentage of happy marriages as we have here in England".

A Polish female acrobat steps out of the aeroplane that crashes through the conservatory roof of a Surrey mansion and demands six oranges and a copy of the Bible; a timid would-be anarchist emerges from his hiding- place in a portable Turkish bath and pulls a gun on the resident millionaire. It would be easy from such details to give the impression that Misalliance is more experimental and proto-Absurdist than is in fact the case. True, the Polish lady acrobat, played with swaggering sang-froid by Abigail Thaw, is a calculated affront to Edwardian notions of femininity. Betty in Cloud Nine is scandalised when reminded that she has legs under her dress. So you can appreciate the shock value of Shaw's heroine who, all cool self-sufficiency, stalks about in a leather flying-suit Emma Peel might have envied.

But, despite this dea ex machina "man-woman, woman-man" and despite some nice performances (especially from Paul Humpoletz as the forthright, ridiculously well-read underwear tycoon), Eves cannot disguise the fact that this is a "dream play" only in theory and for long stretches it is indistinguishable from a garrulous drawing-room comedy. There are one or two gems, though, in the endless jabber, as when the anarchist declares with sublime bathos that "Rome fell. Babylon fell. Hindhead's turn will come."

`Cloud Nine', Old Vic, London, SE1 (0171-928 7616) in rep 26 April; `Misalliance', Birmingham Rep (0121-236 4455) to 5 April

Paul Taylor

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