ORLANDO at the Garrick Theatre
“The whole show has a fey enchantment to it that will appeal to many, even if the main character remains an enigma”
In this adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s uncategorizable novel Orlando, adaptor Neil Bartlett has taken the unusual step of putting the author on stage. Not content to offer us just one Virginia Woolf though, he offers us nine. It’s a clever way to tip off the audience that Orlando is no ordinary biography of an Elizabethan young man, and that his creator is no ordinary writer. In this joint production between Michael Grandage and Nimax Theatres at the Garrick Theatre, audiences have the opportunity to see Emma Corrin (fresh from her success on TV in The Crown) on stage as the hero/heroine Orlando. Corrin is surrounded by a cast of performers who shift from character to character, gender to gender, and age to age. They are all as chameleon like as the eponymous character in Woolf’s classic novel.
Wait a minute, I hear you say, hero/heroine Orlando? What does that mean? For those who haven’t read Woolf’s Orlando, the story goes something like this. An aristocratic young man, born in 1581 at the height of the Elizabethan Age, wakes up to find he has transformed from male into female after a particularly hard night partying in Istanbul where he is the English Ambassador to the Turkish Court. Lady Orlando, as s/he now becomes, returns to England to find at first hand, all the difficulties of living while female. From inheritances she cannot claim; clothes she cannot wear, and a husband that she must take, Lady Orlando struggles through the Georgian, Victorian and finally, early twentieth century, asking the unanswerable: Who Am I? Did I mention that Orlando is also a time traveller, and ages only twenty years in four centuries? What Virginia Woolf has given us in Orlando is a novel that isn’t science fiction, or a biography. Written in 1928, it is, instead, a thinly disguised celebration of her lover, Vita Sackville-West, and part of a series of revolutionary writings on a woman’s right to self-expression and self-determination. What makes it revolutionary, even today, is that Woolf sees these aims through the eyes of a human who can experience life through the perspective of shifting gender.
Adaptor Neil Bartlett has set himself a complex and challenging task with Orlando. First there is Woolf’s novelistic prose style and the lavish descriptions, as Orlando is not just a courtier, but a poet. How do you transfer Woolf’s prose style to the dramatic language of the theatre? To his credit, Bartlett gets around the problem by bringing on all those Virginias to make Orlando’s case for him/her. Corrin, as Orlando, is an actor up to the challenge of making Orlando come alive on stage. Corrin’s portrayal of Orlando’s innocence and naivety contrast sympathetically with the ever changing cast of characters who attempt to use Orlando for their own ends. They fail because Orlando is outside their experience of humans. And it is this, paradoxically, that makes the production ultimately unsatisfying. It’s because no one, including Orlando, has a really good answer to the question “Who Am I?” Orlando becomes a narrative, rather than a drama, relying heavily on quotes from Woolf, Shakespeare, Pope, and others, to create settings, rather than a plot.
Bartlett shows his theatrical skills in Orlando not so much as a playwright, but in his previous experience as a director. It is in direction that this production really sparkles. And as a director, Michael Grandage’s experience and artistry shows in the way he gathers together his talented cast of eleven, and gives them the space to shine in a variety of roles on a bare bones stage. The stage is populated from time to time with beds, backdrops, and costume racks. (Set and costume design by Peter McIntosh). Just enough to set the scene among a host of short scenes as the centuries pass. Deborah Findlay as Mrs Grimsditch is the one constant in Orlando’s life, mysteriously appearing at random moments to advise on everything from appropriate dress to the date. She also provides a quick sketch of historical events to bring young Orlando (and the audience) up to speed. Findlay’s performance is both endearing and accessible—allowing everyone to anchor themselves among the shifting seas of Woolf’s imagination. The whole show has a fey enchantment to it that will appeal to many, even if the main character remains an enigma.
There are lots of theatrical moments in this production of Orlando, and the Garrick Theatre is the perfect space to show them off. There’s a lot of sly humour in the dialogue as well. This show is a good choice if you’re looking for something different from the usual ballet and pantomime offerings this holiday season. If you’re intrigued by the idea of Virginia Woolf reinterpreted for the stage, why not give Orlando a chance?
Reviewed on 6th December 2022
by Dominica Plummer
Photography by Marc Brenner
Previously reviewed at this venue: