‘A magical comedy about love and time travel.’ These are the words the Manchester Royal Exchange uses to describe this new adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s infamous 1928 novel, Orlando, first staged in New York in 2010. It must be a daunting prospect to take a novel with no plot, in which the central character changes sex and time-travels through four hundred years of human history – from the Elizabethan era to 1928 – and condense it into less than two hours of stage time. Pulitzer Prize-winner Sarah Ruhl’s version is clever and bold, and mostly successful, and Suranne Jones gives a standout performance as the titular character.
This theatrical adaptation both constrains and frees Woolf’s novel, highlighting aspects of the text at the expense of others. Ruhl has chosen to emphasise the playful, comic nature of Orlando and there are some very funny moments, particularly from Richard Hope, who plays Elizabeth I like a pantomime dame, and from Suranne Jones’ physical reaction – and accompanying facial expressions – to waking up as a woman after seven days asleep. Yes, Orlando can be called a romp, and was Woolf’s love letter to Vita Sackville-West, yet there are many dark elements to the text which Ruhl glosses over at the expense of comedy.
Ruhl has also chosen to maintain much of Woolf’s original prose, which is narrated by three actors in the manner of a Greek chorus (there is very little dialogue in this adaptation). These three men also alternate between male and female roles, further emphasising Woolf’s point that rigid ideas of gender and sexuality are imposed on us by society; in reality they are much more fluid.
Very much in the spirit of Woolf’s novel, the creative team behind this production present a real feast for the imagination, requiring us to suspend judgement, think creatively, and simply be swept along by this gender-bending story which has no respect for the laws of time. Director Max Webster emphasises the pace and narrative drive of the piece – it’s often quite difficult to keep up, and, I imagine, hard to follow if you aren’t familiar with the novel – as well as the idea of mutability and transformation; there is much changing of costume on-stage, lots of entrances and exits, lots of movement.
Webster has employed both a movement director (Liz Ranken) and an aerial consultant (Vicki Amedume), and the scenes where Orlando’s lover Sasha (Molly Gromadzki) is raised on wires and flies about the small space above him – above us – are beautifully done; they play to the fantastical, magical elements of Woolf’s novel, and also movingly evoke the idea of love as something that makes the soul soar.
Webster’s production is also well-served by Ti Green’s minimal design, which requires the actors to carry the few props on and off the stage themselves, and allows the physicality and movement of the piece to shine through. A cellist, Hetti Price, is on-stage throughout, and Isobel Waller-Bridge has composed a wonderful score; as it moves effortlessly from sombre chamber music to loud dance tracks that see Suranne Jones bumping and grinding, it, too, reminds us that people are rarely whom they first seem. In stark contrast to the subdued set, the female characters are seen in outlandish, extravagant costumes that restrict movement and are complicated to put on, drawing attention to the fact that women have long been judged and imprisoned by their gender.
To metamorphose, before our eyes, from a young, love-sick Elizabethan famous for his beautiful legs, to a woman in her thirties constrained by the demands of Victorian society is a difficult task, but Suranne Jones is compelling and utterly believable in all of Orlando’s incarnations. She never leaves the stage – very much the sun around which the action revolves – and demonstrates brilliant comic timing, a sensitive understanding of the reactions of each gender to their situation and is as charismatic and attractive as we imagine Orlando to have been in all his guises.
It is, of course, too much to ask for an adaptation to capture every aspect of a complex text, and while this version of Orlando might gloss over themes such as creativity and writing, and push the humour too far towards slapstick on occasion, it does capture the freedom and passion of the story, and of Woolf’s language. Most of all, however, every element of the production, from the cast through to all aspects of the creative team, works in perfect harmony to deliver that vision, encouraging us to be swept away by a story that refuses to conform and breaks all the rules, that celebrates that we are constantly changing, and are made up of many selves.