Of Rainbow and Granite: ‘Orlando’ Review

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Image credit: Marc Brenner

★★★✰✰

“Orlando naturally loved solitary places, vast views, and to feel himself for ever and ever and ever alone.”

Indeed, in Neil Bartlett and Michael Grandage’s new adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s classic ‘biography’, the titular poet – and, for that matter, the surrounding production – never seems more blissfully at ease than when holding the stage all by their lonesome. As played by Emma Corrin, Woolf’s era-traversing, androgynous hero is a fount of wide-open curiosity, callow mischief and sly wit. Whenever left to their own devices, Orlando cheerfully regales the audience with tales of their exploits, the nature of their hurdles changing but the ebullience of their telling remaining defiantly in place.  

At the outset of the new Orlando’s brisk 90 minutes, the young nobleman is a dashing page of the Elizabethan court, seemingly drunk on youth and its innate possibilities.  Come its midway point, as facilitated by a quite literal overnight change, they are a noblewoman. As the social graces so casually afforded to their previous self are revoked, Orlando is more jaded; still impossibly young but without the invincibility youth used to afford.  Yet in spite of this, they are more joyfully true to their own self than ever, invigorated by this chance to know who Orlando truly is and who they may yet become. Over the course of this journey from naivete to self-knowledge, Corrin skilfully highlights the small ways in which Orlando has changed and, more importantly, all the ways in which they have stayed the same, from one sex to another and over many years. If only this oddly crowded Orlando fully trusted its star to shoulder the load.

The notion that a source author is an essential character within its adaptation is not new. However, Neil Bartlett’s new adaptation has opted to take things a few steps further. As Orlando’s story unfurls, Virginia Woolf is their near-constant companion. But not just one Virginia Woolf. The author is embodied by nine actors, each representing a different facet. It is rare for less than six Virginias to be sharing the stage with Orlando at any given time. In theory, the idea is an intriguing one. By splintering the author into a full Greek chorus, Woolf is allowed to be by turns Orlando’s confidante, sage mentor and partner in mischief. In one standout set piece, Orlando greets a parade of potential suitors, the Virginias like a panel of judges hosting a merciless audition process.

Still, the results are  ultimately wearying. So rarely is Orlando seen without the Virginias that our protagonist can seem at risk of being drowned out altogether. The Virginias all but swamp Orlando as the young poet romances a Russian princess, then again as they embark on a voyage to Constantinople. Most egregiously, the Virginias – along with Orlando’s faithful attendant Mrs Grimsditch (Deborah Findlay) – are all present and accounted for when Orlando rises from bed, miraculously transformed.

“Same person. No difference at all……just a different sex”. So Tilda Swinton’s Orlando wryly observed in Sally Potter’s 1992 film adaptation, catching their changed body in the mirror. Here, the Virginias take the change in hand. “He was a woman”, it is declared, much as in the source novel. But onstage, the result deprives Orlando of their own self-actualisation. Instead, the ever-young poet is ferried this way and that by an armada of fairy godmothers, counselled and advised and flatly instructed come every turn of fate.

Bartlett, Grandage and company’s resolve to honour Woolf is admirable. If only they’d given as much care to Orlando’s title character as to its author.

Words by Thomas Messner


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