NEITHER A WOMAN NOR A MAN: STC’S ORLANDO

November 22, 2015

Often cited as the world’s longest love-letter, Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando is a fictional biography of Orlando, an Elizabethan youth who wins the favour of Queen Elizabeth I, and through good fortune and a dash of incredulity, lives across centuries, barely ageing a day in the process; following a sex-change in Constantinople, she (“for there can be no doubt about her sex”) returns to England a woman, only to find the deck of cards is stacked against her time and again, until Woolf’s novel finishes in “the present age” (i.e. 1928), when Orlando is well over three-hundred years old (yet looks little more than thirty six). Adapted for the stage by Sarah Ruhl, Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Orlando is directed by Sarah Goodes, and although full of colour and energy, it is perhaps hampered somewhat by a text which contains perhaps too much of Woolf’s own text and not enough of the playwright’s own dramaturgical landscaping to make it a truly effective piece of theatre.

Set upon a black stage with a double revolve set into the floor, Renée Mulder’s design features many whimsical moments of stagecraft, and several echoes of ideas from productions seen across Sydney in the past four years. Characters and simple items of set – a banquet table, a lounge, an oak tree, a swing – appear on the outer revolve and disappear as quickly as they came, while two gold staircases stand in the middle, pivoting like clock-hands, opening and closing to echo the passing of time, of Orlando’s ‘lives’, of love. Mulder’s costumes for Orlando are sumptuous in their detail – from ruby-red Elizabethan doublet and pantaloons, to a gold brocade coat, an emerald green gown, a deep-purple dress and corset, and the looser flannel slacks and shirt of Woolf’s own time. Set against Orlando’s own Technicolored wardrobe, the Greek-style chorus are clothed in contemporary everyday clothes – chinos, shirts, cardigans – and expertly transform into queens, courtiers, lovers, archduchesses (and archdukes), actors, and simple folk with the help of a simple prop or item of clothing, like a scarf. Like male and female, light and dark, the two styles work together effortlessly to create a poetic world, a gestural space where gender is meaningless, and where the self is the only constant. To complement Mulder’s richly textured world, Damien Cooper’s lighting is clear and crisp, picking out characters in spotlights, creating several memorable poetic images, and lends the production a dream-like quality. Alan John’s score – a pastiche of styles from across five centuries – effortlessly keeps Orlando’s life moving, and imbues Goodes’ production with a dynamism and energy which complements the use of the revolve.

Goodes’ cast of six are full of an energy and verve which keeps the production moving, maintains our interest in the adventures of Woolf’s eponymous hero/ine. Jacqueline McKenzie’s Orlando is full of a youthful energy and vibrancy, and bursts forth upon the stage like a red bouncy ball, and never stops moving until she hits the twentieth (or perhaps twenty-first) century. There is something of David Bowie’s many personas in her Orlando, although it could just be her hair, and the glorious androgyny with which she plays the role. John Gaden seems born to play Queen Elizabeth I, and looks equally regal and slightly-ridiculous in a vibrant pink gown; as with every one of his performances, his skill at making the text sing is on display here, and his deft transition between Queen, chorus, street folk and housekeepers is wonderful to behold. Matthew Backer’s Marmaduke is resplendent in a plum-coloured coat and waistcoat, every inch Orlando’s equal, and he brings a compelling dignity to his brief glimpse of Desdemona. Anthony Taufa brings a wide-eyed ostentation to his poet, a harrowing remorse to his Othello, and a chameleon’s skill at switching between several smaller characters in the chorus. Garth Holcombe’s Archduchess seems perhaps too frivolous for the play’s context, but his Archduke is more subtly calibrated, and exemplifies everything Orlando (by then a woman) is up against in her life – the societal favouring of men over women, and the almost impossible task of carving your own niche in the face of it. Luisa Hastings Edge’s Sasha is resplendent in a fur coat, hat, and shimmering tights, and has a melancholic edge to her girlishness which cuts against Orlando’s energy and wide-eyed optimism; her brief moments ice-skating with McKenzie’s Orlando are sweet, and even though some might consider them saccharine or jarring against the flow of the rest of the production, there’s a tenderness to them which highlights the blushes of youthful love, the giddy drowning of yourself in another person, and the whole-bodied feeling of being in love with someone.

If there is one criticism with this production, it lies in Ruhl’s play, in the text – in the adaptation – itself. In strictly adhering to Woolf’s own language, structure, and style, Ruhl has not quite exerted the full amount of force required to take the novel from the page to the stage, and keep Woolf’s intellectual and often witty arguments intact. By itself, the play is crystalline, a crisp and sparkling addition to Ruhl’s already beguiling oeuvre, and reads very much like any of her other plays – the dialogue and stage directions are almost poetic, fragmentary, abstractions of thoughts or ideas. And while in her other plays it might work, here in Orlando it feels too light, as though it only glides across the surface of Woolf’s love letter-cum-novel, rather than exploring the bewitching darkness and occasional melancholy of a three-hundred year old life.

To her credit, Goodes seeks to redress this in her production, and does so with a lightness and a play-fullness which seeks to illuminate the exquisite thrill of a life lived across several centuries. With Mulder’s help, she achieves Woolf’s darkness in the set’s walls and floor, time’s abyss surrounding Orlando, swallowing everything s/he loves as s/he passes through it from one century to the next. Like Woolf in her novel, Ruhl’s chorus act as cheeky biographers to this extraordinary life, and Goodes moves them around and through the space with the skill of a choreographer, ushering one moment in one door while seeing another out, and they become almost Shakespearean in their function as stage managers to Orlando’s life, interjecting at crucial times and facilitating changes in time, place, location, century…

At the heart of Woolf’s novel is the tension between the individual and the unbending constraints of a society’s rules, and in particular the fate of women in the eyes of the law. This is conveyed halfway through the play when Orlando returns to England from Constantinople as a woman; “she was now a victim of two major law suits: (1) that you are now dead, and therefore cannot hold any property whatsoever; (2) that you are a woman, which amounts to much the same thing.” While Ruhl races through this moment in favour of the comic retort of someone having just changed sex, century, and country, Goodes underplays the moment, and we see in this brief exchange how far we haven’t come in the eighty-seven years since Woolf wrote her novel.

And herein lies the power of Goodes’ production – by utilising a relatively sparse staging (albeit a richly costumed one), she allows Woolf’s words to breathe, allows the poetic space between Ruhl’s adaptation and the reality of Orlando’s situation to work itself upon her audience. Granted, the play does move along at a rapid pace, but there’s something in that too, that is echoed in the final act, when Orlando finds herself in the present age, and marvels at technological advancements beyond her wildest dreams; we find ourselves sharing Orlando’s wide-eyed wonder, yet we also marvel at how little has changed, how similar we are at times to the Elizabethan age in which Orlando was born. The power in Orlando – in Woolf’s novel (as in her other work), as much as in this production – lies in the effect it has upon us, as individuals, to challenge the way we think about our preconceptions, our world views, and the way we behave towards others. “Let us upon your imaginary forces work,” Woolf, Ruhl, and Goodes, seem to be saying, and in doing so, they show us that there is still an enormous power in dreaming of a better world and trying to put that dream into practice, one person at a time. It might take us three-hundred years or more to grow (or write) an oak tree, but big things do indeed grow from little things, and every oak was once an acorn. Perhaps Woolf’s novel – with the new lease of life breathed into it by Ruhl (and here, Goodes) – can be the acorn for someone in their own time.

WEBSITE © Glenn Saunders 2017 - 2020. Images as credited.