Jermyn Street Theatre
Reviewed – 4th May 2022
“The fine cast of five deliver Ruhl’s honed script with gorgeous vivacity, tongues in cheeks and glints in eyes”
It is easy to fall into a debate about whether Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” would have the same impact as it did nearly a century ago if she had written it in today’s climate. But we’re going to avoid that digression here. Clearly, it’s influence and relevance is as powerful now as it ever was, not just in its treatment of the subject of gender, but as a satiric look at history, literature and convention. Published in 1928, it was one of Woolf’s best-selling books. And the most enjoyable. Woolf declared while writing it that “my body was flooded with rapture and my brain with ideas”. The novel’s popularity and longevity were practically guaranteed before she even put pen to paper.
And it continues. Both ‘high art’ and gossipy at the same time it has been adapted for theatre and film, most notably Sally Potter’s 1992 release starring Tilda Swinton. Continuing the trend is Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation at the Jermyn Street Theatre. Choosing not to compete with the big budgets, this is a playful and low-key reimagining that focuses on the humour and the subtle mischief; without trying to shoe-horn the original story into a contemporary setting.
We begin in the reign of Elizabeth I. Orlando (Taylor McClaine) is born as a male nobleman with poetic ambitions. With dubious motives, the Virgin Queen adopts him as a pageboy, and a plaything, until her death when Orlando promptly falls for Sasha, an excitable and unreliable Russian princess (a wonderfully skittish but underused Skye Hallam). Orlando’s heart is broken by Sasha, so he briefly returns to his abandoned poetry before heading for Constantinople. It is here that Orlando inexplicably falls asleep for days and awakens to find that he has metamorphosed into a woman. Completely accepting of the change, she is the same person, same personality, same intellect, and while she stays biologically female her amorous inclinations swing both ways throughout the ensuing centuries.
There is a lot to cram into an hour and a half of stage time. The fine cast of five deliver Ruhl’s honed script with gorgeous vivacity, tongues in cheeks and glints in eyes. There is an old-fashioned quality that simultaneously has a timeless feel. We are in the past and the present. They are like a bygone travelling troupe of players who have pitched up in Piccadilly. McClaine, in the titular role, is a delight to watch throughout. Star quality is etched across their performance; a performance imbued with a deadpan humour that matches the ease with which the character switches roles, genders and sensibilities.
Tigger Blaize, Rosalind Lailey and Stanton Wright play the numerous other roles and, comprising a chorus, the trio narrate the story with clarity and precise timing, overlapping the narrative and weaving threads of comedy and insight into the dramatic backdrop. At one point, following the throwaway line “… then he was she…”, we almost expect the chorus to launch into Lou Reed’s “Hey, babe, take a Walk on the Wild Side”.
All in all, though, the production is not quite a walk on the wild side. It still remains relatively safe, veering towards the shock-free traditional. It seems that the memo about safety didn’t reach designer Emily Stuart, whose costumes are daring, colourful and brilliant – a highlight of the show – which add to the sense of fun and irreverence.
This adaptation teases out the theatricality of Woolf’s novel. If the innate radicalism doesn’t quite cut through, the playfulness, the wit and the satirical undertows certainly do. “Orlando” was ahead of its time a century ago. Today it is certainly very much of the time. Make time to see it.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Steve Gregson
Jermyn Street Theatre until 28th May
Previously reviewed at this venue: