Adapter: Neil Bartlett
Director: Michael Grandage
Virginia Woolf’s novel about self-knowledge and the search for love has been adapted many times for the stage but Michael Grandage’s new production of Orlando plays into the fluidity of gender identity and narrative voice with a cast who emulate the title character by assuming many different male and female roles, while the body and costume speak to performative definitions of sex across the centuries.
The 15-year-old Orlando meets Queen Elizabeth I who warns the young man to “beware the year”. Soon he’s at the Court of James I, enjoying revels on the frozen Thames before the era slips again and Charles II is on the throne. Sleep transforms Orlando into a woman who enjoys and then endures the centuries that follow, chasing away ideas of marriage and purpose in the hope of remaining free and eternally wondering “who am I?”
Adapted by Neil Bartlett, this is a consciously theatrical adaptation in which characters speak directly to the audience, comment on time passing and the different limitations of each era, especially for women when Orlando changes sex halfway through the story. The major addition here is a collective of nine actors playing Virginia Woolf simultaneously who each deliver single lines, acting as a Chorus in some respects as well as a narrator of sorts as the collective Woolf, presumably representing the many facets of the author’s life and personality discovered through the writing of Orlando.
But storytelling also comes from Mrs Grimsditch, Orlando’s housekeep and dresser, an anachronistic character who often provides details about the sudden change of era and its characteristics, and from Orlando him/herself who delivers occasional monologues to the audience about their experiences. For Bartlett gendered language is pointedly applied, emphasising the pronoun transition from ‘him’ to ‘her’ in reference to the title character as well as the notable inclusion of an eighteenth-century scene in which the now female Orlando disguises herself as a man in order to enjoy London’s nocturnal pleasures. And although the story ends in 1928 when the novel does, the flexibility in Grandage’s production, in which the cast play multiple roles, nods to the continued evolution of gender definitions should Orlando live another 100 years.
What Orlando lacks is content, so while this nifty production races through the centuries, Orlando spends most of it in bed – a continued feature in Peter McKintosh’s set design as a place where the character enjoys their body or sleeps away the decades. Most of Orlando’s adventures are reduced to narrative, the various English Courts and Constantinople disappear in the blink of an eye with a hanging canopy and some lighting tricks by Howard Hudson. But with such a short running time, there are few visually realised adventures and instead lots of description.
As a consequence, it is just as difficult for the audience as it for Orlando to understand who they are and what their adventures mean beyond the imposition of gender. Emma Corrin is fortunately a charismatic stage presence, suggesting the slightly swaggering masculinity of the young Orlando and the confident female sexuality of the elder, connecting the two together in one consistent character with Corrin as watchable as ever. Deborah Findlay is equally magnificent as Mrs Grimsditch while the ensemble cast of Virginias and other characters blend together well.
Yet, there could be more to this Orlando than just their very topical gender identity. The call of the nomadic life and the lure of the sea are notionally mentioned but not explored, the different expectations Orlando experiences as a man and a woman, and the contrasting notions of biography itself as a through line of personality or a series of disparate occurrences are all in Woolf’s novel but not examined here. At 80-minutes the production may feel slight, but the essence of Woolf’s story emphasises its contemporary appeal.
Runs until 25 February 2023