Review: ‘Orlando’

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando remains one of the most daring and unusual novels of the early twentieth century. Based loosely on the life of Woolf’s companion Vita Sackville-West, the semi-biographical narrative spans over three hundred years as it follows the life of Orlando, a sixteenth century nobleman at the court of Elizabeth I, who abruptly changes gender at the age of 30 and continues to live through to the twentieth century as a woman. It challenges perceptions of gender, how we write history, and fundamentally reconfigures the stylistic possibilities of biographical writing. Subsequently, much of the impact of Orlando lies in its manner of construction, meaning that a stage adaptation faces significant challenges from the outset. Is it possible to capture the chimerical world conjured up by Woolf in a far more concrete setting; how does one negotiate the distinct lack of dialogue in the book?

Nonetheless, this week sees Byzantium Productions staging Sarah Ruhl’s 2011 adaptation, with Orlando played by Dominic Applewhite and Grainne O’Mahony on alternating nights. The most striking aspect of the adaptation is its humour: Ruhl altered little of the original script, leaving Woolf’s biting wit to shine through. Her cutting observations regarding the status of women are transformed into fantastic one-liners, with Femi Nylander and Grainne O’Mahony standing out with brilliant comic turns as the Archduchess/duke and Queen Elizabeth respectively.

Dominic Applewhite & Florence Brady as Orlando and Sasha
Dominic Applewhite & Florence Brady as Orlando and Sasha

Unfortunately, when placed on stage, a text as multi-faceted as Orlando demands immediate transformations of mood from the cast which were not always achieved. The more serious undertones of the text did not have time or space to emerge from under the physical humour, and as the tone shifts to focus upon the horror of ‘the present moment’, the power of memory, and Orlando’s perception of time, the direct transcription of the text sometimes came across as stilted philosophising. This effect was heightened as with a running time of only 1.5 hours, the play omits much which contextualises these observations (the character Nicholas Greene is also noticeably missing and the ending slightly altered, neither of which are obvious improvements).

For the most part, Byzantium Productions staged the play imaginatively. The costuming and lack of significant props were especially effective, and the acting quality from the cast was flawless throughout. Allowing the majority of the scenery to be created by projections and lighting effects captured something of the magical quality of Woolf’s journey through history, with the suggested landscape largely left to the audience’s imagination. The projector could have been used more constructively, however, when the twentieth century arrives. This is the point where the theme of the inadequacy of language reaches its climax as signs become gibberish, and Woolf declares that ‘the body and mind were like scraps of torn paper tumbling from a each and, indeed, the process of motoring fast out of London so much resembles the chopping up small of identity which precedes unconsciousness and perhaps death itself that it is an open question in what sense Orlando could be said to have existed at the present moment.’ Alongside the vivid descriptions of the bustling tumult of the twentieth century city, this final chapter provides the perfect opportunity for some truly innovative staging which was not capitalised upon.

Grainne O'Mahony as Queen Elizabeth I
Grainne O’Mahony as Queen Elizabeth I

I was greatly entertained by the vast majority of tonight’s performance. As a comic take on normative gender roles, Byzantium Productions’ Orlando cannot be faulted. Fast-paced and amusing enough to earn spontaneous bursts of audience applause, the cast gave a thoroughly exceptional performance. As a theatrical incarnation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, however, this is an adaptation which falls a little short of the brilliance of the original. The fluidity of identity is not transferred completely effectively to the stage, where you are faced with a very physical and tangible incarnation of the protagonist. It is unclear, however, whether a different production would be able to avoid this pitfall, given the significantly different demands of the novel/reader and the stage/audience. What Byzantium Productions’ staging does it does well, and should be commended for tackling such a daunting project.

Leah Broad

‘Orlando’ runs until Saturday 22nd November at the Keble O’Reilly Theatre; more information can be found on their Facebook page.

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