Writer: Virginia Woolf
Adapter: Sarah Ruhl
Score: Isobel Waller- Bridge
Director: Max Webster
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
After great success with a version of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ director Max Webster returns to The Royal Exchange with another literary adaptation. ‘Orlando’, written by Virginia Woolf, is a novel in which fantastical events occur without any attempt at rationalisation. Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation, although respectful, is not over reverential. Actually it is quite cheeky giving a genuine surprise by being very funny. While retaining Woolf’s central theme of the irrelevance of gender the adaptation concerns the vital power of imagination as much as sexual politics.
In the Elizabethan age aspiring poet Orlando (Suranne Jones) becomes the lover of the aging monarch. The teenager is unfaithful and betrayal by his true love, Sasha (a sensual and acrobatic Molly Gromadzki) and unwanted attention from other English suitors compels Orlando to travel the world. Until one day he wakes up to find he has become a woman and, apparently, immortal. Perhaps now he can finish his poem.
Max Webster’s direction reflects the impudence of the script. The play opens with Orlando making a deep courtly bow – and then twerking like a maniac. The transgender theme is not restricted to the central character; the three-man chorus also participate and seem to be having a very good time so doing. Richard Hope’s wonderfully predatory and coarse Queen Elizabeth glides across the stage like a brick outhouse on wheels. The deliberately over the top costumes and grotesque characterisation demonstrating the folly of judging people by their gender.
It is an approach that, with a less skilled cast, could easily go wrong. Fortunately the supporting chorus of Thomas Arnold, Richard Hope and Tunji Kasim, are able to carry off scenes that could become ridiculous with grace and gravity while still retaining the essential humour. Webster draws out the lyrical elements of Woolf’s writing both orally and visually. The cast narrate as well as enact the story and revel in speaking the beautiful prose. Orlando and Sasha become so caught up in the ecstasy of love that they literally float above the earth – carried aloft by Isobel Waller- Bridge’s delicate score.
Nowadays realistic theatre sets can be created virtually by computer projection but designer Ti Green goes back to basics. The set is bare with simple props brought on as scenes change. A white sheet is rolled out across the stage to create the famous scene in which Orlando and Sasha skate on the frozen Thames. Green trusts the audience to fill any gaps in the scenery with their imagination. Webster ensures that all elements of the play serve the story. Molly Gromadzki ‘s breath-taking aerial displays are not for mere spectacle; they add to the dream-like atmosphere of a world in which the incredible is commonplace.
The evening is dominated by a superb performance by Suranne Jones who is onstage throughout the entire play. Her enthusiastic interpretation conveys the joyful anarchy of the production and ensures that the audience wilfully suspend disbelief so that scenes that could strain credibility become plausible. Jones’s gleeful performance is wide ranging including elements of slapstick; Orlando finds adjusting to her new feminine clothes a struggle and tumbles around the stage in the style of the ‘Carry On’ Films.
‘ Orlando’ is a terrific demonstration of the imaginative power of theatre and shows that classic texts can be presented in a manner that is true to the spirit of the original and also fresh and entertaining”
Photo: Jonthan Keenan | Runs until 22nd March