Staging biographies, even fictional ones, is often tedious and predictable work, yet Emily Ingram’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s biopic ‘Orlando’ was engaging and entertaining, and despite the fact that I spent the first half on the floor (I was late), I hardly felt the numbness in my legs for my delight at what was happening in front of me. Despite my lateness, the artful storytelling of the play swiftly caught me up and whisked me away into the world of the immortal Duke Orlando, aspiring artist who one day wakes up a woman.
The intimate setting of the play – a small room in the belly of the Monkey Barrel Comedy Club – brought the audience closer to the actors and their tale. There’s something about making accidental eye contact with a crossdressing James Sullivan as Archduchess Harriet that really draws you into the story!
It was immediately clear upon entering the room how much thought had been put into the staging of the play. From the paper frog and oak leaves, to the typeset-print costumes and page-turning backdrops, the quality of the production as a self-aware novel really came through and took the play to the next level, including Jasper Fforde-like fourth-wall breaks. The use of a single actor to play multiple characters really added to the sense that the play might have been put on spontaneously at the end of a dinner party, using the contents of a wardrobe, or that the audience has stepped into the world of novels where only the protagonists have a fixed identity, and the rest are complements to their story.
Though supposedly a play that centres on Orlando’s adaptation to her transition, the audience sees very little of this on stage. While there’s a level of acknowledgement that Orlando will now have to wear corsets and skirts, there is little to show how she navigates through society as a newly-formed woman. While it is arguably refreshing to see transgender characters without their trans-ness as the focal point of the story, an element of the transition is lost. Where is her body dysphoria – for it must be there somewhere, as the change was not her decision? At the time of her transition, Orlando is living in a patriarchal society – how does she manage her transformation from privileged male, to oppressed female?
Similarly, it was never really set out that Orlando and Nick Greene (Gerry Kielty) were immortal. While it is difficult to include every aspect of Woolf’s novel in a comparatively short play, surely the detail of longevity needs to be established before the audience watches three centuries go by without quite knowing how or why.
Standout performances came, of course, from Elsa van der Wal as Orlando, and Lucy Davidson as the Writer. Van der Wal was a relatable, well-rounded Orlando, showing both comedy and poignant vulnerability. Her embodiment of Orlando shows how freeing it is to defy the boundaries of gender, and how fluidity can be used as a tool. The audience roots for Orlando as we watch her cross centuries and defy expectations, and breathes a small sigh of relief for her as she finally lays down to rest in the roots of her oak tree.
Davidson as the Writer showed wit, sarcasm, amusing self-awareness of her own modernism, and the deep attachment that all writers come to develop for their characters. Particularly touching was the moment in which Davidson and van der Wal seem to meet for the first and last time, acknowledging the other’s significance in their lives.
Ultimately, this is an adaptation of Woolf’s novel that both enchants and dissatisfies. While the staging of the play was truly magical, and the cast wove a beautiful tale of ambition and self-exploration, it could have been taken a step further by delving into the concerns of gender and identity that are so heavily implied in the script. Be that as it may, the task of interpreting Woolf’s work is a difficult one, and the production team should be very proud of their accomplishments here.