'Orlando': in Dialogue

Double Take

Certainly enjoyable to watch, does Orlando manage to live up to is ambitious goals? Sylvie and Amber discuss.

Amber Ash, Sylvie Lewis

Seemingly the most popular London production of the 2022 Christmas season, Neil Bartlett and Michael Grandage’s Orlando sparked much attention in its daring attempt to stage a seemingly unstageable narrative. Sylvie Lewis and Amber Ash discuss the successes and failures of this theatrical effort.

Hopes and Anticipations

Sylvie: The question that arose most frequently in conversations I had with friends before watching the play adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, was: how will they do it? Shown at the Garrick Theatre in London, the play stages the events of Woolf’s 1928 novel, in which the titular character transforms from a man to a woman, and time-travels across several eras from the Elizabethan period onward. In the novel, we are told — often at the beginnings and ends of chapters — what century we have reached, until we arrive in the novel’s present moment, down to the exact minute. My hope for the play was that some form of stylism would be used to transition between scenes, preventing it from becoming an overly descriptive crash course from era to era. The Orlando section of the captivating 2015 ballet Woolf Works, for instance, follows the novel much less closely — given the medium, it omits Woolf’s words — and opts for an alien, futuristic aesthetic. Despite my love for Woolf, I don’t expect, or want, for Woolf adaptations to be perfectly faithful. Orlando is too complicated a text to be translated into theatre with every detail still present.

Time Travel

Amber: This production makes the ambitious attempt to distil a whirlwind of a novel into just 90 minutes. For a text so well-loved for its jumps across time and gender, I was disappointed to find Woolf’s stylistic experimentation reduced to a series of asides and a call-and-response historical trivia. While effective in keeping the audience up to speed with temporal shifts, it results in an incongruity of tone that undermines some of the more interesting aspects of the play. As characters quiz us on our historical knowledge and comment on narrative structure, the aim is surely to echo Woolf’s playful style by disrupting theatrical convention (such audience engagement might be common in pantomimes, but here leaves the audience unsure of how to respond). However, the knowing asides quickly become tiresome as they offer an easy, rather than thoughtful, source of humour.

Character and Identity

Sylvie: I’m drawn to the idea of a version of Orlando that is decidedly someone else’s — a reinvention, not entirely Woolf’s Orlando. Bartlett’s play attempts this in some ways. The various characters who interact with Orlando, when not playing these roles, become a chorus of Virginia Woolfs, all in the same costumes. This is visually striking and means that actors with otherwise small parts have further opportunity to contribute to each scene, and yet I found myself wanting more from the gimmick — to hear more about the creative process of writing the novel, perhaps.

Amber: The brown-clad chorus of Virginias is perhaps the most notable innovation in Bartlett’s Orlando adaptation, which is seemingly as much about Woolf herself as it is the titular character. The production is at its best in its efforts to investigate character and identity creation: Corrin’s arrival onstage, prompted by this chorus, is simple yet striking and sets a promising tone for the piece. Despite the often-clunky delivery of group lines (“Virginia… Virginia… Virginia… Woolf!”), the chorus, and their character doubling as Orlando’s love interests, largely work to complement a pervasive sense of construction. However, if there is an unfortunate casualty of this focus on Orlando and the Virginias, it is the lack of attention or lasting significance given to Orlando’s romantic pursuits and my resulting lack of investment in any character development.


Sylvie: The acting performances, I think, were the play’s strongest element. Emma Corrin struck me as the perfect choice for a modern adaptation of Orlando, inhabiting both the titular character’s boyish youth and maturity as a woman with a persisting sense of joy and curiosity about the world. This, to me, is the spirit of Orlando.

Amber: Emma Corrin’s Orlando commands the narrative with energy and curiosity and is well balanced by the seemingly all-knowing housekeeper, Mrs Grimsditch, played by Deborah Findlay, who makes the best of the comic asides to engage the audience in the process.

Set and Costume

Amber: Orlando’s theme of construction is supported thoughtfully by Peter McKintosh’s set and costume design. What could be a very extravagant set is instead relatively spare, with striking flourishes from Howard Hudson’s lighting design, as a wooden stage and brick backdrop let the actors carry the story. As sustainable production is increasingly a concern in theatre, it might remind us how much can be achieved with even the simplest of staging. Holding back on his set design, McKintosh justly shifts focus onto his delightful costumes, including a fantastic quick-change from a late-Stuart gown into Georgian men’s attire as Orlando prepares for a night out on the town. Constantly shifting between costumes, the only constant to Corrin’s Orlando is their striking bleach-blond mullet, which lends them an aptly androgynous and contemporary edge throughout and sets them apart from the drab chorus that created them.

Sylvie: My wish for exciting costumes was fulfilled in part — the Elizabethan costumes, with their dramatic silhouettes, were fabulous. As somebody interested in Victorian clothing, however, I was disappointed that Orlando was never depicted in a Victorian dress — only a nightgown (though the scene in which Orlando dresses up as a man again in the nineteenth century was a lot of fun). The play appeared anti-Victorian in general, with characters labelling the era misogynistic and dull, as if previous eras were any kinder to women — though I realise that much of this is parroted from the novel.


Amber: As the production delights in construction, be it in literature, theatre, gender, or identity more broadly, it is a shame it misses the opportunity to do something really innovative with its ending. Despite purportedly interrogating the fundamental question ‘Who am I?’, Bartlett chooses to close the production with a not-so-subtle-or-delicate eulogy to Woolf and her suicide. Given that the novel was published over a decade before her death, we might question its relevance to the character of Orlando.

Closing thoughts

Sylvie: The play, while faltering in its efforts to answer the difficult questions it poses in its dialogue — what is a life? how do you make a life? — is nonetheless an exciting creative effort in its daring — in its love of laughter and midnight.

Amber: Michael Grandage’s direction makes a valiant effort to bring the script to life, and the production makes a significant contribution towards gender representation in theatre. Yet, for all the boundary-breaking fun it promises, worn-out theatrical tropes settle too readily on comfort to do the narrative any real justice. An ambitious undertaking that makes a promising start at answering difficult and important questions about identity, *Orlando *is an enjoyable watch that ironically struggles to find its own sense of self. 3 stars.

Orlando is playing at the Garrick Theatre until 25 February.


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