For those unfamiliar, Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando – adapted for the stage here by Neil Bartlett and directed by Michael Grandage – is something of a unique concept. An incredibly progressive text for 1928 it plays with gender, identity, time and place, following its protagonist Orlando (portrayed wonderfully here by the captivating Emma Corrin) over several centuries as they navigate a changing and evolving London and the various events and historical figures they encounter along the way.
There’s a lot to take in over this 80-minute (no interval) show which makes for compelling viewing. Intermittently narrated by a chorus of Virginia Woolfs in identical outfits, the story flies by at a lightening place, kicking off at the tail end of the 16th century and winding up hundreds of years later when the novel is published. We’re introduced to Queen Elizabeth I; we witness the frost fair when the Thames froze; we encounter all the significant people who come and go from Orlando’s long life.
The set, props and costumes are relatively straightforward but work effectively. Corrin’s first outfit reveal is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, and new eras are ushered in with a different draped material and an on-stage costume change. Orlando’s assistant Mrs Grimsditch (Deborah Findlay) is enjoyable to watch; she has a repeated refrain of “boys and girls and everyone” which is rather heartwarming, showing how easy it is to be inclusive.
In fact there’s a beauty in the simplicity of the message here; during a period of often vitriolic debate about the trans experience, with discourse focusing on body parts or toilets, it’s refreshing to see a play with a storyline about gender and identity portray its protagonist in such a positive light. Over the course of the show it’s abundantly clear that it doesn’t matter at all whether our hero is male or female – it’s much more important that Orlando simply has an opportunity to tell their story. Having this role played on a West End stage by a rapidly ascending non-binary actor is wonderful to watch.
We thoroughly enjoyed Orlando. It’s incredibly brief – occasionally feeling a little too short for its own good, with a handful of scenes and interactions which would have likely benefited from a little more space and time to develop – but it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable adaptation of a brilliant story. Intelligent, thought-provoking and compelling, it’s great to see a show like this playing at a theatre like the Garrick at Christmas.
GAY TIMES gives Orlando – 4/5
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