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Making a play of one’s own: The trials of adapting Virginia Woolf for the stage

What draws theatre folk to adapt Virginia Woolf? Holly Williams admires their skill... and courage
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Who’s afraid of adapting Virginia Woolf? It is a scary prospect – the modernist is famously experimental with form, a pioneer of stream-of-consciousness writing. Her novels are concerned with internal lives, they play with genre and often lack linear narrative. This is why we love them – but a play without a plot? Tricky.

And yet… Woolf seems irresistible to adaptors. Last week saw the opening of a theatrical version of her 1928 novel Orlando, at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, by Tony-winning playwright Sarah Ruhl. A fantastical romp, Orlando recounts the life of an Elizabethan gentleman who lives for 400 years – turning into a woman along the way. Woolf’s prose aimed for “satire & wildness”: the eponymous protagonist (based on Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West) whirls through romantic dalliances with Russian princesses, Elizabeth I and an androgynous Sea Captain, holds raucous parties in Constantinople and travels with gypsies. It combines what Woolf termed “florid descriptive passages in great abundance” with satire on the differing “penalties and privileges” society imposes on the sexes.

Not easy to adapt, then – yet this is far from the first attempt. A 2008 Venice Biennale interpretation was soundtracked with The Smiths song “Nowhere Fast”, arranged in the musical style of each period of history Orlando moves through; the male and female actors playing Orlando and her lovers swapped roles at the interval. Legendary director Robert Wilson created a monologue minimalist version, variously performed by Miranda Richardson, Isabelle Huppert, and Chinese opera star, Wei Hai-min. In 2010, Scottish company Cryptic adapted that text, adding video projections and a dense electronic score. Meanwhile Sally Potter’s 1992 film, starring Tilda Swinton, turned the story into a vivid, clever pastiche of a costume drama.

As with these Orlandos, most successful Woolf adaptations play fast and loose with their own medium. Mrs Dalloway was made into a disappointingly conventional film starring Vanessa Redgrave in 1997, but benefited from a much freer re-interpretation in The Hours, the novel by Michael Cunningham, which was also made into a film in 2002. This interwove a modern version of the Mrs Dalloway plot, a troubled 1950s housewife reading the book, and Woolf herself writing it (and then killing herself). In 2006, director Katie Mitchell was acclaimed for Waves, her version of Woolf’s most abstract, poetic work, The Waves, at the National Theatre, which employed live filming on stage. And a 2007 play of To the Lighthouse at the Berkeley Rep in California morphed into an opera in the final scenes.

Such shifts in style and medium can provide an effective equivalent to Woolf’s own experimental intentions: while writing The Waves, she wrote in her diary it was to be “free; yet concentrated; prose yet poetry; a novel & a play”. Tempting stuff – as Katie Mitchell acknowledged, calling the quote “irresistible for a theatre director”.  For my money, she nailed this fluidity in Waves. The production saw Woolf’s text delivered by an actor, while others created the equivalent visual image on stage – which was also visibly filmed and relayed live to a screen. It was a brilliant realisation of Woolf’s strange novel: fragmentary, impressionistic, shifting, creating concrete images of daily life while giving voice to characters’ tumultuous inner lives. And it forced the audience to question  the form – “what is theatre?” – just as Woolf’s work makes the reader ask “what is a novel?”.

Yet even the best productions have been marred by dourness: all rarefied poetry, portentous delivery. Such criticisms were made about To the Lighthouse, Wilson and Cryptic’s Orlandos, as well as Waves. It’s true these do little to dispel the myth of Woolf as a gloomy, difficult author. Waves even included Woolf as a character and she was very much “the tortured genius”, a portrayal other adaptations – I’m looking at you, twice-drowned Nicole Kidman in The Hours – also favour. Woolf in adaptation can feel as thoroughly weighed down as the oft-recreated image of tragic Virginia, heading into the river with stones in her pockets.

This is where the new Orlando swoops in – quite literally, with its use of aerial flying, employed to evoke both ice-skating on the frozen Thames, and sensual love-making. The show is a riot, complementing Woolf’s witticisms with slapstick, pantomime and simulated sex romps to pounding dance music. Suranne Jones plays Orlando with an impish glee, while a chorus of three men narrate events with considerable humour.

But how do you solve a problem like narration? Previous productions have translated Woolf’s sometimes lyrical, sometimes comically windy passages into the first person for Orlando to speak. It doesn’t work, sounding mannered or po-faced. But Ruhl keeps the ironic distance of Woolf’s third-person narration, dividing it fluidly between all the actors.

The production canters along at a hectic pace, matching the rushing, gushing tide of Woolf’s text and makes a virtue of necessity in flagging up its theatricality. The unavoidable doubling of actors, in a production with a small cast and many roles, leads to much cross-dressing. This frequently highlights and elucidates Woolf’s serious points about gender and sexuality being social constructs, but also evokes Shakespeare’s cross-dressing comedies – and the actors play to the gallery with raunchy ribaldry.

Similarly, on-stage costume changes and small-scale props – Jones dons a toy ship as a hat for one voyage, “heading towards England” – send up the practical limitations of the theatre in telling an epic life-story. In this, the production actually mirrors the self-conscious acknowledgement within Woolf’s novel that the written word is an imperfect way to capture a human life… Woolf slyly subtitled Orlando “A Biography”, and yet throughout she parodies the form, and highlights the limitations, of biography.

As in Potter’s film, Ruhl’s play brings us up to date: instead of ending in the “present moment” of 1928, the year Woolf’s novel was completed, it concludes in 2014. Orlando is finally able to write – s/he’s been struggling to pen a poem for over 300 years – and as Jones scribbles, the narrators swap her quill for a fountain pen, for a typewriter, for a laptop. It’s a resonant final image: just as the way Orlando writes keeps changing with the times she moves through, so it seems the way we re-write Woolf will continue to change.

‘Orlando’ is at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, to 22 March