Theatre review: Cloud 9, Basement Theatre

By Janet McAllister

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Steven Anthony-Maxwell, Donogh Rees and Heath Jones in Cloud 9. Photo / Supplied
Steven Anthony-Maxwell, Donogh Rees and Heath Jones in Cloud 9. Photo / Supplied

After Silo Theatre's bombastic revival of Caryl Churchill's Thatcherite era Top Girls last year comes this quietly-stylish independent revival of Churchill's earlier commentary on the patriarchal twinset of colonial and sexual oppression.

The fascinating first half is historical power analysis in the guise of twisted bedroom farce, a White Mischief precursor in an anonymous African outpost of the 19th century British empire.

White men - the masters and fathers of all - treat women, natives and children as interchangeable, "dark and dangerous": all are to be disciplined, all are to be screwed. A game of hide-and-seek becomes a curdled echo of the lovers-lost-in-the- forest scene in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Victims declare love for their (also restricted) persecutors.

Like Top Girls, Cloud 9 revels in words and length, and in Brecht's "epic theatre" tradition, we're reminded we're watching artifice: a woman is played by a man, children are played by adults, an African "native" is played by a European, in order to show how these roles are imposed straitjackets.

"I am a man's creation," says Betty the privileged wife (Steven Anthony-Maxwell).

The cast of eight, directed by Sam Shore, do a very good job. Underlining the menace, Alex Taylor's spare rumbling discordant piano cuts the occasional sweetness provided by an onstage string and woodwind ensemble. Isobel Dryburgh's excellent set covers the stage with real grass and trims wild wood within straight frames as a metaphor for the characters' restrictions.

The contrasting second half in "present day" London is vaguer, more open-ended, as it examines loosening gender roles and unleashed fluid sexuality. However, written in the late 1970s, this second act is more historical than this production wants to admit. Updating a soldier's deployment from Northern Ireland to Afghanistan does not immediately make the script - with its goddess incantations - current; issues of gender and sexuality have changed (not always for the better).

Inexplicably - and an obvious hole when the play is produced in a white settler society like New Zealand - the legacy of colonial oppression is left unexamined.

But it is a great treat to see such a well-produced, chunky play - clothed orgy and all - in an intimate setting, for only $25.

What: Cloud 9
Where: Basement Theatre, to April 13

- NZ Herald

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