Friday 21 February 2014

Review: Orlando - Royal Exchange Theatre

image from Royal Exchange website
Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel poses a series of challenges for directors. As well as the frequent shifts in location, time and gender, the narrative veers between the spectacular and the insular, both of which are difficult to dramatise effectively - and there is also the legacy of Tilda Swinton’s glorious turn in the 1992 film adaptation to live up to. Fortunately, the Royal Exchange’s new production has the spirit and invention necessary to convey the playfulness, illusion and charm of Orlando’s world.

To maintain the spirit and voice of the source material, the play is largely driven by narration, rather than dialogue; Suranne Jones’s title character aside, the cast take on multiple roles, and double up as a sort of chorus, conveying the characters’ inner thoughts as well as setting the scene. This approach comes with risks – the rule of ‘show, don’t tell’ is out of the window, and the absence of dialogue acts to distance the audience from the characters, to some extent. At times, this is almost a mime-show, Orlando skipping around as the rest of the cast explain what’s going on. This gives the first half a certain campy energy (heightened by Richard Hope’s panto dame turn as Queen Elizabeth), but the scenes in which Orlando interacts with the Russian noblewoman Sasha (Molly Gromadzki) are perhaps the most satisfying. Here, Max Webster’s inventive staging (the ice-skating Sasha twirls through the air on a high wire, pirouetting around Orlando) in combined by warm, sympathetic interaction between the characters. Elsewhere, it is the set pieces that offer stand out moments – the rave Orlando organises in Constantinople, and a snippet of Othello played out during the carnival on a frozen River Thames.

Jones does a good job of portraying Orlando as a girlish boy before the interval, putting a lot of energy into the role, but is stronger in the second half, getting plenty of physical comedy from the character’s struggle to adopt a more ‘feminine’ way of behaving. A scene in which she kills a fly, in order to cheat a potential husband in a game of chance, is particularly well done. Aside from the lead, the standout performance from the rest of the cast also happens after the interval, with Tunji Kasim’s Shelmerdine.

The play manages to create an impressive visual spectacle without relying heavily on props or effects – generally scenes are created using just one piece of furniture, a bed or a miniature model of a ship. The constantly moving cast gives the drama a great deal of energy, and the swift set-changes are in keeping with the fluidity of the source text. At one point, the need to attach and detach harnesses threatens to hold up Act 1 slightly (possibly a first night glitch), but the effect justifies the brief delays.  

This Orlando is not exactly a traditional drama – instead, the unconventional staging responds to the unconventional style of Woolf’s novel. This is, as noted previously, a risky approach, but one that is generally justified by the end result. The final section, located in the twentieth century, is probably the closest we get to standard drama, and is also the least successful. Orlando’s visit to a department store feels somehow perfunctory, an add-on to the main body of the play, lacking the sparkle and charm of what had gone before. Overall, though, this is a brave and enjoyable staging of a wonderful story. 

Orlando runs until 22 March 2014. Box Office

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