It’s 2023. It’s time for an electro-folk musical based on Orlando by Virginia Woolf.
"He - for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it -"
The first line of the novel makes it clear that the character of Orlando is “he” at the start of the story and this new theatrical adaptation spends a little bit of time tangling with that word choice. The five actors playing Orlando as a chorus negotiate the present-day discussion of pronouns and gender briefly – the character is called “he” then, in that scene, but perhaps not later.
Then they have to tackle the end of the sentence, which I will not reproduce here, about the title character slicing at a skull. The show’s trigger warnings tell us the show deals with racism and colonialism, though it is really just called out and not tackled. It’s acknowledged and then the story moves on. But early on, the stage is set – this work is a retelling and a re-examination of Woolf's novel.
What’s really thrilling about this production by Antipodes theatre is its work with the gender commentary of the story. Of Orlando changing from man to woman, without tying it to the gender of the actors – who are all dressed in androgynous camping gear. Jeans, gumboots, jackets and knitted jumpers.
If Orlando is fluid, so are the performers and their movement from moment to moment, scene to scene and song to song. This is not just a simple retelling of the novel, though the cornerstones of the story are here, but a reckoning with what this nearly one-hundred year-old novel has to say to a twenty-first century audience.
Much like the book ends the day it was originally published and the film version, starring Tilda Swinton, stretches Orlando’s life to when it was released in the early 1990s, this play acknowledges that its makers live in 2023 – a world of 24-hour K-marts and “Early Settler” stores. There’s a lot of lovely satire about writing and collaboration and theatre-making in amongst it all, too.
Though this production is advertised as a New Musical, it’s also called a “play with songs” within the text but it’s so beautifully wrought, it felt more like a chamber opera to me. There are two musicians on stage, playing keyboard and piano and a violin, occasionally providing ethereal back up singing. The songs themselves are beautiful, each of them capturing Orlando’s mood and feeling. They don't move the plot along, so much as create an atmosphere and emotion. They are very affecting.
The ensemble cast is astonishing, often working together as a chorus, embodying the fullness and contradictions of the character of Orlando. They each have their moments to shine, bringing their own individuality to their performances of the central character. The diversity of gender represented on stage is really thrilling, giving further depth to the production and the realisation of Woolf’s creation.
Director Margot Fenley crafts exquisite tableaux throughout and navigates the changing tones with ease. There’s foreboding at the start, but sometimes the show is hilarious, occasionally moving and in moments, just gorgeous. Movement director Belle Hansen has the actors create an oak tree at one point that was thrilling to watch come together. Hansen’s work is a delight throughout.
Bethany J Fellows’ set design is simple and striking. John Collopy’s lighting, as always, is subtle and painterly a lot of the time. This show is beautiful to look at.
It’s 2023. Of course, it’s time for an electro-folk musical based on Orlando by Virginia Woolf. The novel was so ahead of its time, some of its conversations are so relevant as to feel contemporary.
Antipodes Theatre has crafted a lyrical, touching, thoughtful piece of theatre; inspired and challenged by the original novel.
- Keith Gow, Theatre First