By Liam McLoughlin 17/11/2015
As a man, Orlando was free to be an ambassador, a philanderer and hold a queen in his arms. As a woman, she was forced to be ‘obedient, chaste and scented ... through tedious discipline’. As a man, Orlando could ‘lead an army, or prance down Whitehall on a charger, or wear seventy-two different medals on my breast.’ As a woman, she realised, ‘All I can do is pour out tea and ask my lords how they like it’.
Virginia Woolf wrote this fantastical biography about a young nobleman prized by Queen Elizabeth I who falls into a long sleep during an ambassadorial post in Constantinople and wakes up as a woman. In her new form, Orlando does not age and experiences life until the present day. Thankfully for modern women, Woolf’s book about gender, power and the penalties of womanhood through the ages became instantly irrelevant upon publication in 1928. In the same year, females in the UK won equal voting rights and so women never had to worry about gender equality ever again.
The absurdity of such a statement may help explain why Sydney Theatre Company’s current production feels so pertinent nearly 90 years later. Using Sarah Ruhl’s 2010 adaptation of Woolf’s original text, Orlando blends bountiful energy, playfulness, poetry and stagecraft to intelligently depict four centuries of modern history lived as a transgender woman.
The cast is terrific, led by the lively and captivating Jacqueline McKenzie. She bounces around the stage sucking the marrow out of life in just the way you imagine when reading the novel (although I shouldn’t speak for your imagination, perhaps your Orlando is less springy than mine). Her passion for lover Sasha is absorbing and her comic timing is tremendous in interactions with the Archduchess Harriet Griselda, an early incarnation of Mrs Doubtfire. Although at times her expressions of extreme anger and sadness are less convincing, McKenzie does a fine job portraying Orlando’s disorientation with modern life.
McKenzie is marvellously supported by John Gaden, Mathew Backer, Garth Holcombe and Anthony Taufa, who sail across a sea of characters and share the tale’s narration with Orlando. Gaden’s Elizabeth I is amusing, Holcombe’s Archduchess is entertaining and in their brief performances as Desdemona and Othello, Backer and Taufa show their impressive range. Luisa Hastings Edge is beguiling as Sasha and a fitting cause for Orlando’s intense feelings.
The technical aspects of the production are brilliantly executed. Damien Cooper’s lighting design and Renée Mulder’s costume design beautifully accentuate McKenzie’s bright and bubbly performance. Two revolving staircases stand in for ships, mansions and the passing of centuries, and director Sarah Goodes uses them to create several striking scenes, especially that of Orlando’s gender transformation.
Adapting a 200 page novel of great depth and profound insight to a one hour, 45 minute romp does have its weaknesses. There are so many rich ideas in Woolf’s original work. There are the prominent themes about sexist gender roles, which, in clickbait parlance, Woolf ‘nails’. When Orlando returns to England as a woman she finds there are two charges against her: ‘(1) that she was dead and therefore could not hold any property; (2) that she was a woman which amounts to much the same thing’. It’s also fascinating to see the extroversion and agency of Orlando the man juxtaposed with Orlando the woman, filled with introspection and reflections on herself in relation to men. Beyond these themes, the novel touches on the fluidity of gender, the androgyny of the creative instinct, the role of the ‘spirit of the age’ in influencing individual lives, the value of the arts in making sense of the world, the fracturing of the self, and the relationship of past, present and future. No matter how valiant, any effort to translate these themes, 400 years of history and scores of characters to the stage will end up feeling a little thin in parts,
Yet this production is so playful, so vibrant and so clever, it barely matters. Thankfully the script retains much of the novel’s lyricism and insight. Woolf based the titular character on her lover, Vita Sackville-West, an English poet and novelist. Sackville-West’s son once described the book as 'the longest and most charming love letter in literature'.
With this latest incarnation of Orlando, it’s not hard to see why.
4 stars out of 5
By Virginia Woolf
A Sydney Theatre Company production
Adapted by Sarah Ruhl
Director: Sarah Goodes
Designer: Renée Mulder
Lighting Designer: Damien Cooper
Musical Director and Composer: Alan John
Sound Designer: Steve Francis
Cast: Mathew Backer, John Gaden, Luisa Hastings Edge, Garth Holcombe, Jacqueline McKenzie and Anthony Taufa
Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
9 November - 19 December