Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Orlando by Virginia Woolf, adapted by Sarah Ruhl

Orlando from the novel by Virginia Woolf, adapted by Sarah Ruhl.  Sydney Theatre Company, directed by Sarah Goodes.  Designer – Renée Mulder; Lighting – Damien Cooper; Music – Alan John; Sound – Steve Francis.  Sydney Opera House, November 9 – December 19, 2015.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 16

Well – I had no idea Virginia Woolf could be so much fun.  Orlando begins his story as a typical Elizabethan swashbuckling man having an interesting affair with a Russian Princess.  Orlando ends her story in about 1930 driving her own car, married to an Archduke, having some confused memories and new-found feelings about the Russian Princess, and finding men still don’t understand women – especially when they now expect to behave and think like men.

As Sarah Goodes has written, “The story of Orlando is so epic, bold and brave, it soars through time, age, gender and space.”  This adaptation by Sarah Ruhl is a wonder to behold.  And enjoy. 

And it’s all done with just six terrific actors.  Their roles will give you some idea of the madcap sort of approach which makes the play so much fun to watch.

Jacqueline McKenzie is Orlando, who is desperate to become a great writer.  After several hundred years, his/her poem about the oak tree and the green grass is still never quite complete.

Luisa Hastings Edge plays Sasha, the Princess with a seemingly endless title.

The inimitable John Gaden is an absolutely magnificent Queen Elizabeth I, who also seems to have escaped from Alice in Wonderland, thoroughly lustful for the man with the most beautiful legs, Orlando. 

Polynesian actor Anthony Taufa is a poet, Othello, a seaman on Princess Sasha’s ship taking her away from Orlando (when Orlando is still a man).

Matthew Backer is Desdemona, horribly trying to defend herself as Othello so stupidly kills her, moralising all the way.  Backer is Orlando’s awful suitor Marmaduke in a later time, a kind of reverse image of Queen Elizabeth now that Orlando is a woman.

And Garth Holcombe is at times both the Archduke and an Archduchess.

Apart from Orlando, the other five come together in many different combinations as a Chorus who sing, observe, tell the story, make comments and provide Orlando with all he/she needs to continue on his/her way.

A huge movable set of stairs going up one side and down the other form a kind of pyramid which is opened up into many different configurations to reveal all manner of things, from a ‘cupboard under the stairs’ for props and costumes, to the prow of Sasha’s ship, to a secret mirrored space where the naked Orlando is exposed.

The sense of journey is conveyed by setting the action on a dual revolve, where the centre may turn, the outer rim may turn, together or separately, bringing actors or props (one was a fully laden banquet table which reminded me of Prospero’s entertainment by his spirits in The Tempest) into view or away as needed.

Such flexibility on the part of the actors, costumes and set design would have to make Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull proud from an economic point of view.  But he’ll have to rethink his position on same-sex marriage, methinks. 

And, as usual for Sydney Theatre Company productions, the program provides excellent background research material including an extract from Behind the Mask: The Life of Vita Sackville-West by Matthew Dennison.  Background notes tell us “Orlando (1928) was written for and dedicated to Vita Sackville-West whom Virginia met in 1922.  Somewhere between 1925 and 1929, their friendship developed into a love affair.”  The highlighted quote from Dennison fills in the picture: “...the catalyst for Vita’s sexual epiphany was a uniform of breeches and leather gaiters.  She would wear it for the rest of her life.”

So don’t miss Orlando, and make sure you take the extra $10 for the program.

Photos by Prudence Upton