by Lynn on March 1, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

It’s been three years since I was able to go to London with a group of theatre lovers. This is the first play in a week of terrific theatre.

Live and in person at the Garrick Theatre, London, England until Feb. 25.

Adapted by Neil Bartlett

From the novel by Virginia Woolf

Directed by Michael Grandage

Set and costumes by Peter McKintosh

Lighting by Howard Hudson

Composer and sound designed by Alex Baranowski

Cast: Jessica Alade

Debra Baker

Akuc Bol

Lucy Briers

Richard Cant

Emma Corrin

Melissa Lowe

Jodie McNee

Oliver Wickham

Millicent Wong

A wild ride through history of gender issues, identity, misogyny, the subjugation of women, the exalted place of men through the ages and how clothes can make and hide ‘the man’. Terrific performance by Emma Corrin as Orlando.

Background: Virginia Woolf calls this fanciful work of fiction, “A Biography” and she uses her great friend and lover Vita Sackville-West as her model. Both women were devoted to their respective husbands but Vita and Virginia had a particularly close and passionate relationship. It produced a vibrant book of love letters between them and of course with Virginia Woolf, we have the literary masterpiece, “Orlando.” Gender fluidity, gender issues, non-binary….Virginia Woolf was writing about these hot-button topics almost 100 years ago and making reference to them five centuries ago.   

The Story. Virginia Woolf wrote the novel, “Orlando,” in 1928, the year women won the vote in Britain. This is part of the first line of the novel: “He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it–…..” Virginia Woolf began her novel in the 16th century. With that first line, Ms. Woolf could have been talking about the present day in the 21st century. The novel has been described as “A brilliantly imagined pageant of English  history, society and literature, “Orlando” is also a witty, feminist reappraisal of the nature of the sexes.”

Orlando is born in the Elizabethan age to wealth and position. He is a lusty young nobleman at the beginning of the novel and three centuries later is a modern woman living under the dictates of society’s rules of how a woman should behave, meaning she should be at home tending the house, having babies and being beholden to her husband.

The Production. Playwright Neil Bartlett adapted Virginia Woolf’s novel into a swift play of 90 minutes without losing any of the novel’s freshness, whimsy, topicality, historical references or the timeliness of the subject matter. The language is bracing and witty.

A tall, slim woman enters. She is dressed in a long skirt, simple blouse and a long sweater. She wears sensible shoes. She carries a book and a pencil. She is followed by another woman dressed exactly the same way. And another and another, until there are eight actors dressed the same way.  Ahha, they are all Virginia Woolf and they are making notes for a future novel. Perhaps “Orlando” is the novel she is working on. Each person playing Virginia Woolf has a word or two and then one more person speaks the lines and one is startled. While this Virginia Woolf is graceful and the hands embrace and caress the air, the voice is decidedly male. Aha, a look at the program reveals that Richard Cant plays one of the Virginia Woolfs. Cant’s hands are terrific in capturing the femininity and elegance of Virginia Woolf. Oliver Wickham plays one of the Virginias as well and understudies the role of Orlando. I love the gender fluidity of casting and in playing Virginia absolutely ‘straight’ (no pun intended). In all cases the actors are being true to Neil Bartlett’s idea of the character of Virginia.

Orlando (Emma Corrin) makes his entrance (for at this point in the play, 1600, Orlando is a young, vibrant man) wearing a shortish, white night shirt. He stretches his hands upward, revealing a prodigious appendage poking out. You’re not sure you saw what you just saw, but you did. Beautiful silk breeches and fitted finery are put on him by various attendants. Emma Corrin as Orlando is fine-featured, confident and inquisitive about everything. Orlando as this compelling young man is also keenly aware of his alure and effect on women. He continues for 100 years being the center of his universe until one day he goes to sleep for seven days and wakes up a woman.

At this point Emma Corrin as Orlando who is now a woman has a softer voice, more delicate ways and is aware of a different world for women. This continues for another three hundred years. One example of the new world is when Orlando marries the love of her life and is appalled that part of the marriage ceremony is the requirement for her to love, honour and obey her husband. She yells out, “obey?” in horror…

Guiding both the male and female Orlando through the centuries is Mrs. Grimsditch (Debra Baker), a kind of narrator/chorus about the changing worlds Orlando journeys through. At one Mrs. Grimsditch comments that “The nineteenth century did nothing for women.” It’s a terrific line. Ordinarily the part of Mrs. Grimsditch is played by the wondrous Deborah Findlay. But she was indisposed so her understudy, Debra Baker did the role with sass, verve and an off-handed directness. She was terrific.  Also compelling is Millicent Wong as one of the Virginias but especially Sasha, a mysterious Russian woman Orlando (the man) met and was besotted by. As Sasha, Millicent Wong plays her with such confidence and arrogance it was fascinating watching her toy with Orlando who spent decades toying with others.

Director Michael Grandage directs with assurance. Much of the staging is almost balletic it’s so beautifully choreographed. Orlando (both as a man and as a woman) is dressed and undressed with ease as he/she is surrounded by characters who create a sense of mystery—we never see him/her naked. In one instance Orlando puts her arms up, and a frock cascades over the arms covering the body, followed by other adornments that complete the look of whatever century we are in. The dressing/undressing is quick, efficient and also theatrical.

Comment. Orlando is a smart, brisk, witty adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s dense, challenging, brilliantly perceptive novel. And in Emma Corrin we have an actor of such beguiling charm and ability that they (Emma Corrin is non-binary) are convincing as Orlando as both a man and a woman.

Closed: Feb. 25, 2023.

Running Time: 90 minutes (no intermission).

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