Virginia Woolf's Orlando, theatre review
Manchester Royal Exchange
It is more than 20 years since Sally Potter’s ravishing cinema adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s time-shifting odyssey wooed art house audiences. With Tilda Swinton in the title role as the gender-bending heroine cum hero, some spectacularly beautiful cinematography (particularly the unforgettable Tudor ice scenes) and stylish wit, the film set a high bar for those brave enough to follow.
International experimentalist mega star Robert Wilson had a go in the mid 1990s bringing his high-concept version to the Edinburgh Festival starring Miranda Richardson although the critics were largely unconvinced by his trademark minimalist efforts.
It took another American dramatist, Pulitzer-prize and Tony-award nominated Sarah Ruhl to deliver the next reworking of this English period piece to a New York audience some four years ago. This new version, the highlight of the Royal Exchange’s spring season, plays it – much of the time - for laughs.
Suranne Jones, a highly accomplished stage and screen actor, gives a performance as Orlando as solid as the Thames during the little ice age. So too the other members of the cast who work their hearts out to recreate a panorama stretching across 400 years of English history armed with little more than a white sheet and a small model of a boat.
Such physical limitations are, of course, one of the unique joys of theatre – making imaginative demands on the audience which, when it works, offer up such fabulously rich rewards. Yet this production seemed to err more on the side of slap-my-thigh pantomime humour than the fabulous, magical adventure of Orlando on-screen or page.
Woolf splurged the novel during the Bloomsbury winter of 1927/8 at the height of her impassioned affair with Vita Sackville-West. It is a “gay” romp both in the old fashioned and the modern sense – an enchanted and enchanting Sapphic adventure through the ages.
But at its core Woolf is making the serious point that the creative spirit is androgynous and cannot be confined by gender roles imposed by patriarchal society. The play hits the same points hard too but begins to drift in the second half.
It is at its best in the court of Elizabeth I, a lurid old drag queen smelling of wardrobes and lusting after the shapely pins of her strange young courtier. The centuries speed up through stultifying Georgian parlours to the smothering Victoriana of the author’s youth.
We are propelled beyond Woolf’s present to a “now” symbolised by a lap top computer and a contented female writer, yet much of the previous enjoyment is lost in a hurried confusion in which the “lessons” of the text feel like they are being rammed home.
Many in the audience clearly loved this production undoubtedly helped by the excellent performances and the haunting musical accompaniment of cellist Hetti Price.
But although we are reminded of the otherness of times past – when everything from the size of the vegetables to the colour of the sky was different - such strangeness is too rarely evoked.
To 22 March
Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boymusic
Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Katie Hopkins attacked me on Twitter — so I reported her to the police for inciting racial hatred
- 2 I might be an MP, but that doesn't stop me fighting sexism with my breasts
- 3 Google April Fools': company unveils backwards search engine and huggable digital assistant
- 4 April Fools' Day 2015: The best hoax news stories from around the internet
- 5 Gamers confess the worst things they've done in The Sims
Gaza Banksy mural sold to 'conman' for just $175
Tidal launch: The most pretentious lines from Alicia Keys' valedictory speech
Tidal: Jay Z's Spotify rival criticised for making wealthy artists even richer
Top Gear live to go ahead: Jeremy Clarkson to join Richard Hammond and James May... just don't call it Top Gear
James May hints he will not continue on Top Gear without Jeremy Clarkson
Ukip supporters are 55 or older, white and socially conservative, finds British Social Attitudes Report
Street preacher quoting from the Bible fined for calling homosexuality an 'abomination'
Katie Hopkins attacked me on Twitter — so I reported her to the police for inciting racial hatred
Woman filmed launching racist tirade against men on the Tube for speaking in 'own lingo'
The West has it totally wrong on Lee Kuan Yew
David Cameron calls Labour 'hopeless, sneering socialists' while announcing 7-day NHS plans