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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
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.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing