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

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

Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
Arts and Entertainment
Crowd control: institutions like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are packed

Art
Arts and Entertainment
Cillian Murphy stars as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices