AdaptationDramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Orlando – Theatre Royal, York

Writer/Director/Producer: Elton Townend Jones

Based on the novel by: Virginia Woolf

Producer/Performer: Rebecca Vaughan

Costume Designer: Kate Flanaghan

Lighting Designer: Martin Tucker

Sound Designer: Danny Bright

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

York Literature Festival timetabled an impressive series of events at many venues from March 15 to 31, with the Studio at York Theatre Royal featuring regularly throughout the final week, including this performance of Orlando by the always excellent Dyad Productions.

Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel, deliberately packaged as a “biography”, has a protagonist who transcends restrictions of time and gender. A youth at the court of Queen Elizabeth, he becomes ambassador to Constantinople under Charles II before suddenly discovering himself to have become a woman. She experiences the changes in society between the 18th and 20th centuries and the novel finishes in 1928, though Elton Townend Jones’ adaptation extends it nominally to 2019. The name “Orlando” recalls Charlemagne’s paladins, but Woolf’s main inspiration was the personality and family history of her lover, Vita Sackville-West whose son termed it “the longest and most charming love letter in literature”.

As well as being a celebration of the fluidity of gender, Orlando joys in the primacy of poetry: Orlando writes plays and poems by the yard as a young Elizabethan, and his simplest work is acclaimed in 19th-century literary society. The primacy of poetry also dictates Virginia Woolf’s narrative style: there are satirical flourishes, sardonic asides, but above all, there are extended passages of luminous description.

This is where Townend Jones’ adaptation is particularly successful. Apart from turning a biography into an autobiography and slightly simplifying the story-line, he sticks pretty closely to the original. The final stages express the agony and triumph of the quest for identity more emotionally than Woolf’s cooler finish, but mostly he treats the text with a judicious mixture of respect and the knife. The flavour of Woolf’s descriptions remains, but the prolixity is cut – necessarily, in a dramatic performance.

Rebecca Vaughan’s wonderfully expressive performance makes the magical elements believable. She (or he) is credible, so her story becomes so – well, up to a point. Never over-playing her hand or hinting at either melodrama or caricature, Vaughan establishes the masculinity of the young Orlando in a jut of the jaw or a would-be man-of-the-world stance or confidential aside. Her relish for the nuances of the spoken word makes the most of elaborate poetic description and witty throwaways alike. Throughout she fulfils the essential requirement for the character – to be always different, but the same – and the restructuring as an autobiography gives Orlando an extra edge of perception.

Both performance and production are beautifully detailed (credit to both producers, Townend Jones and Vaughan), with the frequent changes of mood and circumstance perfectly judged. The designs are elegant and simple, with imaginatively lit drapes as a set and a costume adaptable enough to obviate the need for major change. Similarly with the use of sound: sparing, but always effective.

Touring nationwide | Image: contributed

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