Guest Blog: Orlando at the Corpus Playroom
‘It has not always been so! But men want us no longer; the women detest us. We go, we go. I (Purity says this) to the hen roost. I (Chastity says this) to the still unravished heights of Surrey. I (Modesty says this) to any cosy nook where there are ivy and curtains in plenty.’
(Orlando, Virginia Woolf)
Orlando as a one-act play
It was with curiosity and, I must admit, a certain degree of trepidation that I anticipated watching a one-hour ADC adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928) at the Corpus Playroom in Cambridge. As one of those ‘the-book-is-always-better’ types, I struggled to imagine how Woolf’s gloriously rambling mock-biography of the centuries-old Orlando, complete with a sex change, could easily be adapted to such a short rendition on the stage.
The major challenge in adapting Orlando is that, although the novel is filled with vibrant characters and deeply comic incidents, it is dominated by the wry, witty voice of its narrator. It excels in the humour of interjection and asides from the very first sentence – ‘He – for there could be no doubt of his sex…’. The solution to this problem in the script used by the ADC, an adaptation by the American playwright Sarah Ruhl, is to create a play largely from Woolf’s own sentences, to be shared by a group of four actors, plus Orlando, in a manner reminiscent of a Greek chorus.
Orlando suits such a style very well, and dividing sentences and clauses between actors in fact opens up the discursiveness of Woolf’s style, drawing attention to her irony and contradictions. This resulted in a truly comic tone that had the audience laughing for much of the performance. Small moments gained a certain vibrancy as Woolf’s curious descriptions became conversations with the overlap of narrative, dialogue and free indirect speech. One such moment was the Queen’s arch reply to Orlando’s description of her ‘nervous, crabbed, sickly hand’, that she rather had ‘a thin hand with long fingers always curling as if round an orb or sceptre’. The chorus monologue seemed an entirely natural fit for the text, and reminded me recurrently of The Waves.
Once the hurdle of narration is overcome, it becomes abundantly clear that Orlando is inherently dramatic in style and themes. It is from the first sentence predominantly concerned with costume and dress, with social roles and manners, and how gender is involved in these matters of appearance. As the lights first brighten the audience sees five figures posed in a line like figures of allegory, one holding a skull … ‘It is the Renaissance!’ the play begins. Clever additions to simple white costumes – a neck ruff here, a belt here – evoke the period with just enough suggestion to aid the audience’s imagination as the shared monologue describes the English court and the Great Frost. Each caricatured period is a performance, and this merges well with the recurrent concern in the novel that identity is moulded by period and dress. Orlando does not realise how becoming a woman will change her until she puts on the attire of an English woman and is treated accordingly. Transferring the novel into drama highlighted the very Shakespearean nature of this gender-play. From the sparse opening scene the play evoked Falstaff’s declaration that ‘This chair shall be my state, this dagger my sceptre and this cushion my crown’. As in Henry IV, it is unclear if for Woolf identity remains constant underneath a social performance, or is itself shaped by social performance.
The decision to cast Orlando as a woman (Georgina Taylor) who acts the part of a man until the transformation works very well. This production explores female comedy in a way that is too rarely seen. These five young women kept the audience chuckling with an impressive combination of physical comedy, slapstick, and exaggerated character acting (a truly wonderful old Queen Elizabeth from Alice Tyrrell, and a snorting and hooting Archduchess from Rosy Sida, a dreamy Sasha from Juliet Martin, and delicate Marmaduke from Pol Bradford-Corris). From kisses, a hilariously dysfunctional and lively fake moustache, to a well-done elevator scene in the modern section, the acting was confident and convincing, eliciting much laughter. This really showed off Woolf’s wit to advantage, with lines such as the Archduchess’s wonderfully nonsensical exclamation, ‘I shot an elk in Sweden!’ But tenderness and more serious moments were not drowned out by bawdy humour. Sasha’s symbolic reappearance after Orlando’s realisations about female identity allowed a moment to ponder the significance of this shifted perspective.
My main regret about this performance was simply that much material had to be left out in order to keep to the running time. This was particularly noticeable as the pace seemed to pick up towards the end. And yet, the novel is in fact well suited for shortening and adaptation, being as it is a series of comic snap-shots and broad, colourful representations of periods. I wish that there were more opportunity for costume changes to represent each period, but recognise the difficulties of accommodating this within a one-act play.
What I found most enjoyable about this production was that despite its flaws, or indeed because of them, it seemed to evoke something of the spirit of Bloomsbury, of the photograph of Julian, Quentin and Angelica Bell performing a play in the garden of Charleston. And because of this freedom and playfulness, it reminds the audience of a very important aspect of Woolf’s work and character – her irreverence and humour. It sometimes seems that Woolf has been placed on an austere plinth by feminist criticism and the commercial weight of her enduring celebrity. Yet in Orlando we see her at her most light, and self-deprecating. The novel is not conclusive, it offers no clear message on the serious topics of feminism and identity politics (which may be why it escaped the censor when first published) and the novelist seems to take herself not half as seriously as do those modern critics determined to find such a message. But this is what makes Orlando so enduringly radical and enjoyable.
Director – Phoebe Segal
Producer – Lucy Tiller
Assistant Director – Megan Reidy, Isla Waring
Publicity Designer – Vashti Kashian-Smith
Costume Designer – Anastasia Joyce
Stage Manager – Ella Pound
Costume Designer – Coral Dalitz
Lighting Designer – Henry Dakin
Set Designer – Mo Gillani
Photographer – Tom Davidson
Makeup Artist – Phoebe Segal
Orlando runs until Saturday 9 February at the Corpus Playroom, Cambridge. Tickets available from https://www.adctheatre.com/whats-on/play/orlando/