“It’s all over the place: incoherent, intolerable, impossible. And I am sick of it”. Those were the words that Virginia Woolf used to describe her classic Orlando in a letter to her lover, Vita Sackville-West, who she was said to have based her central character on. And in a way, she was right – this is, after all, a story which spans 400 years, and features a central character who switches gender halfway through, appears to be immortal and suffers from a bad case of writer’s block.
In the hands of Max Webster though – fresh from adapting another literary classic at the Royal Exchange in the form of To Kill A Mockingbird – Orlando has become, in the words of this production’s tagline: “a magical comedy about love and time travel”. Webster, who has used Sarah Ruel’s adaptation from 2010, has condensed the action down to a fleet-footed two hours which hardly pauses for breath. Much of Woolf’s original prose is kept intact, with Ruhl reshaping the work as a narrative-driven piece, but Webster’s expertise in physical theatre means that there are plenty of set-pieces to wonder at.
Suranne Jones takes on the central role, and does so brilliantly. Those who only know her from her television performances in the likes of Coronation Street and Scott & Bailey will be taken aback with the range she displays here. On stage for the play’s entire duration, she starts off as something close to a pantomime’s principal boy, all thigh slapping and wide-eyed wonder, before subtly switching her gait and voice slightly to transform into a vivacious woman of the ‘Roaring Twenties’. She also displays a fine gift for comic timing, especially just after the interval as she adjusts to her newfound womanly attributes, and her love affair with Tunji Kasim’s Shelmerdine is beautifully portrayed.
Jones never overshadows her fellow cast members though, all of whom appear to be having a terrific amount of fun. Richard Hope, in particular, makes for an uproariously lecherous version of Elizabeth I who takes the young Orlando as a lover, while Hope, Kasim and Thomas Arnold make up a Greek chorus who play several different characters and provide the narration over Hetti Price’s atmospheric live score. There’s also a terrific performance from Molly Gromadzki who plays Orlando’s first love Sasha with seductive, alluring charisma.
Webster matches the performances with some scenes that are often visually stunning. Wolf’s famous depiction of the Frost Fair on the Thames is recreated with a simple white sheet and some subtle lighting, while Gromadzki displays great acrobatic skill, flying around the stage with the aid of some wires. Most memorable of all is Jones’ transformation into the female Orlando, appearing like a butterfly from a chrysalis, clad all in white and with her hair flowing around her shoulders. It’s a scene that fair takes the breath away.
Some may find the breakneck pace somewhat exhausting – the countless asides to the audience and continuous narration may wear thin with some. Also, in a necessary move to make the play leaner, there are some scenes missing which some Woolf purists may grumble at – especially the darker aspects, so Orlando’s bouts of depression are skated over. However, the whole production is pushed along with such brio and vigour that’s it’s impossible not to be charmed, even if you’re unsure what’s going on at times.
At times it’s close to a panto, at others it comes alive as a magical fairy tale. Yet the sheer magnetism of both Jones’ performance and Webster’s production means that it’s impossible to take your eyes off it.