Jeremy Malies in the West End
9 December 2022
Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel has struck adaptors as potentially genre as well as gender-fluid and the text has been reshaped many times. But I doubt if any of the previous iterations (stage, film, comic book, and opera) have had the flair and insight of Neil Bartlett’s new version starring Emma Corrin.
The ensemble. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
In 90 minutes, Bartlett has Corrin (who plays the title character) hurtle from late Elizabethan times through to just beyond Woolf’s death (by her own hand) in 1941. This extends the action as Woolf wrote it in her book by 13 years.
Initially, Corrin’s character develops from a court page (assuredly male – we are shown a phallus for elimination of any doubt) into an outwardly confident but sexually naive young aristocrat who has inherited a vast estate.
Not all the episodes in the text can be included. Bartlett chooses to dwell on certain events such as the Great London Freeze of 1607–8 during which Orlando conceives a crush for Sasha (played by Millicent Wong), a hanger-on at the Russian embassy in Greenwich. We see them have sex though nothing is explicit in the direction by Michael Grandage which is an extended exercise in suggestion. Set and costumes by Peter McKintosh (Olivier winner with Crazy for You) are at their most compelling following this incident when we see a Russian banquet on the frozen Thames. There is torchlight from the towpaths, hints of boats encased in ice, and a set of revellers in furs. The overall tone here from McKintosh (a break with tradition since Grandage usually works with Christopher Oram) is nautical.
The next major episode follows Orlando as an ambassador for Charles II to Constantinople where he sends shockwaves through most of the Levant by hosting debauched parties. Howard Hudson’s lighting depicts these using saffron filters that made me think of a souk. After one of the parties, Orlando falls asleep for many days. He wakens with the same mentality, personality, and memories but physically he has been transformed into a woman. From here onwards Orlando is attracted to both the male and female characters that surround her.
Emma Corrin as Orlando.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
From the very first days at court, Orlando is accompanied by a Mrs Grimsditch played by Deborah Findlay. Primarily, she is a theatre dresser – “I just do wardrobe!” – and is all-seeing in terms of the timeframes, signposting trends and pointing out developments of particular interest such as women being allowed to perform on the English stage immediately after the Restoration.
In the early 1700s, Findlay tells us that we are back with a queen (Anne) and she details the incremental progress that is being made in terms of female emancipation. But property and probate law still make it difficult for a woman to inherit a house! This section is polemic but manages not to be strident. We have references to Alexander Pope (he is a significant character in the novel) and I should love to have seen him on stage to discover how the inventive Bartlett would have portrayed him.
Orlando returns home and the voyage is one of the few passages that palls, with some inept visual gags, notably from Debra Baker as the ship’s captain. I’m surprised that Grandage did not rein this in and am curious to know what Bartlett’s exact stage directions say. All the more surprising since in his 12-year career as an actor, Grandage always impressed with his instinct for comedy.
Corrin creates a sense of spontaneity throughout as the centuries unfold. Their character is all curiosity when confronted with this mammoth whirligig of time. If, as we pretty much know, this book is a love letter to Woolf’s lover Vita Sackville-West then Corrin draws on their formidable technical skills to summon up appropriate levels of candour, quick wits, and idealism.
Corrin can be a chameleon; the actor has strengthened their reputation playing real-life characters including Diana, Princess of Wales in the Netflix series The Crown and a fake heiress within the art world, Anna Sorokin, in the play Anna X. Here, they are luminous and mercurial.
There is also standout acting from Jodie McNee as Orlando’s long-term lover Marmaduke when the couple, without appearing in any way derivative, are shown in the way that we have seen other nineteenth-century lesbian couples such as the diarist Anne Lister and her lover Ann Walker in the TV series Gentleman Jack.
What moved and enthused me about this project was the profusion of actors (at least nine) of many ethnicities, various ages, and both genders who depict Woolf all at the same time in a line across the stage. I’m confident that Grandage is stressing the multitudinous strands to Woolf’s psyche. Known to be an admirer of Walt Whitman, she could herself have declared: “I contain multitudes.” Prominent among the line of Virginias is the male actor Richard Cant making little if any attempt to be androgynous.
Bartlett’s text can be irreverent. Confident that he has lasered in on the true spirit of the source material – and it would be a brave dissenting voice to argue otherwise – he proves playful when referencing other works by Woolf such as A Room of One’s Own. Some of the cultural references are self-indulgent but charming and there are even a few lines from the film Some Like It Hot which it should be remembered involves cross-dressing and an element of gender ambiguity.
Woolf made a point of bringing Orlando to an end on the precise day when she knew that the Hogarth Press would begin printing the novel (Thursday, 11 October 1928). There is no narrator in this play, but Bartlett shows his skill as a dramatist by moving the story forward to Woolf’s real-life death so that Findlay can provide some commentary and tell both Orlando and the assembled Virginias that things really have come to a close. And by a particularly hopeless case of drowning in a muddy Sussex river wearing a tatty raincoat with pockets full of stones. It’s the most moving moment in a taut poignant evening without an interval. I imagine that every audience member will have left pondering Woolf’s legacy in some way. This is a fine brave adaptation that will prove durable.