wed 17/04/2024

Orlando, Royal Exchange, Manchester | reviews, news & interviews

Orlando, Royal Exchange, Manchester

Orlando, Royal Exchange, Manchester

How do you solve a problem like Orlando? Virginia Woolf's love letter cheerfully adapted

Suranne Jones as Orlando with Richard HopeJonathan Keenan

“It’s all about you and the lusts of your flesh and the lure of your mind,” advised Virginia Woolf to Vita Sackville-West when writing the spoof biography Orlando as a “love letter” to her. When she had finished the novel, depicting Vita as an androgynous time-traveller, she wrote defensively: “It is all over the place, incoherent, intolerable, impossible.”

Molly Gromadzki as the alluring Sasha performs demanding aerobatics

Welcome to her world of topsy-turvydom, in which the eponymous hero changes sex, cross-dresses, transgresses barriers of gender, place and time. Along the way he/she derides the male-dominated high social and literary circles he moves in. Woolf speaks through her hero/heroine – and how.

Reading the book is exhilarating, like surfing waves. Woolf’s writing surges along with a sense of energy and excitement, one fanciful image succeeding another and often colliding with it. But this isn’t the novel. It is an adaptation of it by the American playwright Sarah Ruhl, who discovered Orlando about 10 years ago. As the feminist author of the aware and amusing In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play, she seems to be just the right person for the task.

But what a task. After all, Orlando grows from young nobleman of 16 to ravishing woman of 36, moving from Elizabethan times to 1928, when the novel was completed, passing through phases of love including an early dalliance with the old Queen herself. He serves as the British Ambassador in Constantinople, before changing sex and riding out on a donkey to join a “gypsy tribe” for a while. How do you solve a conundrum like Orlando, which is not so much a story as a literary extravaganza?

Ruhl’s answer is to focus on the central character and, initially, on his teenage Russian love Sasha, but also to introduce three male “choruses” in Richard Hope, Thomas Arnold and Tunji Kasim, each of whom fills in the blanks and plays various characters from duchesses to maids. And they play it very much for laughs. Hope’s Queen Elizabeth and Arnold’s Archduchess Harriet resemble the Ugly Sisters. It’s all great fun with elements of Blackadder humour.

The title role is given to an actress, which gives the game away. Suranne Jones (pictured right) evolves from a wide-eyed, boyish, love-sick Elizabethan to a mature and reflective 30-year-old cross-dressing woman. On stage throughout, helped by the actors into different costumes to signify the turn of each century, she is vivacious, energetic and amusing. A charismatic performance.

As far as the language goes, Ruhl uses a lot of narration, which works well in this intimate space, and judiciously keeps a lot of Woolf’s satirical wit and withering commentary. Max Webster, who directed To Kill A Mockingbird here last year, catches the essential pace of the piece, aided by movement director Liz Ranken. There is much entering and exiting, minimal props are whisked on and off, while Molly Gromadzki as the alluring Sasha performs demanding aerobatics, flying like Peter Pan around the arena. Cellist Hetti Price provides sensitive background sound. 

Inevitably, in a version lasting under two hours, Ruhl misses out important elements, such as Orlando’s life-changing experience with the gypsies and his/her mixing with Pope, Addison and Dryden. In the end, when Orlando finally completes her poem “The Oak Tree”, which she has been composing for hundreds of years, she is still searching for her real self. The conundrum is unresolved. “Orlando,” she calls out, “who am I?” The message is clear. For each one of us, which of our many selves is the one we would like it to be?

Suranne Jones evolves from a wide-eyed, boyish, love-sick Elizabethan to a mature and reflective 30-year-old cross-dressing woman


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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