review Orlando Royal Lyceum

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Taking an Elizabethan noble boy on a gender-bending, fantastical, 300-year voyage into 20th-century womanhood, Virginia Woolf's Orlando has itself a diverse identity. It is many things: a lengthy lesbian love letter to Vita Sackville-West; a slyly seditious reworking of the conventions of male biography; a feminist meditation on gender and cultural conditioning; and a celebration of the androgenous spirit.

In Sally Potter's magical, sumptuous 1993 film, Orlando also became a camply astute commentary on national pride and its self deceptions. Jonathan Miller recently claimed that the English "would wade through a lake of pus" to get to a country house. The film guyed this national trait by subverting the tradition of the Brideshead / Howards End-type movie. Beautifully reimagining the book in cinematic terms, the film's last view of an Orlando now liberated from her past was of her as a National Trust visitor to her old home, seen through the wobbly camcorder of her little daughter.

A hard act, this, to follow. Does Robert Wilson's stage version - a solo show starring Miranda Richardson - offer a comparably fresh and thematically developed vision of the piece? The answer, I'm afraid, is no. This highly abstract and choreographed staging has, by and large, nothing to declare but its technique.

With her unnerving translucency and a boyish red bob, Richardson cuts a convincingly ambiguous figure in the earlier scenes. But there's a painful lifelessness and tricksy aridity about the Jacobean and Constantinople episodes that continues up to and through the moment of her gender change. Bafflingly, this takes place with Ms Richardson hidden behind a gigantic absurdist tree, her elongated drawlings punctuated by the recorded sounds of smashing glass. The fact that Richardson begins by delivering her story as restrospect encourages her to develop an alienatingly knowing attitude to experiences we should see her living through without the sophistication of hindsight.

The show improves enormously once Orlando is a woman. The stage pictures begin to have real thematic bite, as when the onset of repressive Victorianism is represented by a tailor's dummy in a funereal bombasine dress which moves in and topples as the tension mounts, with Richardson adopting a similarly broken pose by its side. Later, as she discourses on the new rigid craze for getting married, it accompanies her across the stage, creating a droll but telling glimpse of non-heterosexual coupledom.

All that is left, disappointingly, of the theme of women and literature is Richardson writing in the air a couple of times with her finger. For a feminist piece, the show, as a whole, offers the paradoxical spectacle of an actress being put through extremely regimented paces by a male director.

n To 21 Aug