Turning 30 is a milestone in any young man’s life, but for Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, his 31st year proves seismic. One day he wakes up from a long sleep and gets up naked from his bed. To which it becomes clear that, as Woolf writes, in one of the most astonishing sentences in English literature, “he was a woman”.
And that’s not even half. By the time of this change, which takes place in 17th-century Constantinople, Orlando has already lived about a century and will live another three years, arriving in 1928—the year Woolf’s novel was published—at just 36 years old . but with the accumulated experience of some 400 years of history and lovers of both men and women.
That’s what Woolf wrote Orlando almost a hundred years ago is nothing short of amazing, says theater director Michael Grandage, who is about to open a new West End stage adaptation of this seminal classic starring Emma Corrin (best known for playing Diana, Princess of Wales, in Netflix’s The crown) in the lead.
“[Woolf] was a voice absolutely ahead of its time,” he says, as we meet at the end of a day’s rehearsal at London’s Union Chapel. “How special to come up with the line ‘he was a woman’ almost a century ago. I think we are just catching up to her.”
Grandage, who ran the Donmar Warehouse from 2002 to 2012 and whose company MGC was last in the West End with Inishmore’s lieutenant starring Aidan Turner, is by no means the first to be inspired by Woolf’s classic. There have been many adaptations, including the 1992 movie starring Tilda Swinton. But this Orlando staging arrives at the Garrick Theater at a time when gender fluidity is a particularly hot topic. “What I’d like this piece to do is try to help that debate,” says Grandage.
The key to that job is fun. Woolf’s novel – whimsically titled a ‘biography’ – delves through the ages with dazzling jeu d’esprit, defies genre and convention and celebrates the potential in nonconformity. Inspired by Woolf’s love affair with Vita Sackville-West, there is something joyful about the story – a paean to creative and personal freedom. Famous characters make cameo appearances: as a young nobleman, Orlando hobbles with Elizabeth I and sees Shakespeare sitting at the servants’ dinner table. He falls passionately in love with a Russian princess, possesses vast property and considerable wealth, and is sent as an ambassador to Constantinople.
But becoming a woman, Orlando realizes with dismay, means that it is no longer possible to take an oath, slay a man with a sword, lead an army, or wear a crown. “Once I set foot on English soil all I can do is pour tea and ask my lords how they like it,” she laments.
The skirts get on her nerves, but much more serious is the discovery that in a patriarchal society she is now legally a second-class citizen. The stately home that Orlando owned as a man she now has to fight for, though she remains essentially the same person. “The gender change, while it changed their future, did nothing to change their identities,” Woolf writes of her main character.
“One genius thing Woolf does is that when Orlando becomes a woman, she doesn’t lose her male memory,” says Grandage. “She becomes a woman who remembers everything she did as a man: how she felt as a man, how she acted as a man, and what she got for being a man. . . Woolf managed to be fantastically political without being political on the nose. So she leaves you with a huge debate, but with that she leaves you after the most fantastic story. It exudes goodwill, vitality, joy and yes, horniness.”
Woolf’s novel may be playful, but it is also challenging: it is densely descriptive, contains little dialogue and jumps through time periods. Much of its appeal lies in its stylistic panache. How can you replicate that on stage?
“I don’t want people who like this novel to come over and go, ‘oh, it’s not the novel,'” says Grandage. “It’s about preserving the essence of the novel in the play.”
To that end, Grandage is working with a new script from Neil Bartlett that brings Woolf’s time-traveling protagonist to the present day, channels the original’s joy, humor and elasticity, and is mischievously theatrical. Bartlett, in his own words, has “shamelessly plundered” historical literature for its dialogue – be it a Shakespearean sonnet, a Jacobean tragedy, Restoration comedy or the film. Some love it when it’s hot.
The story takes place on an almost empty stage, with nine versions of Virginia Woolf – each representing a different facet of the author – slipping in and out of their costume to play all the other characters. The idea, Grandage explains, is to expand the novel’s central idea of transformation and mutability and translate its creative scope into theatrical language.
“There’s transformation in a lot of scenes, men dressed as women, women dressed as men, everything is downright theatrical,” he says. “And an empty stage helps your storytelling technique.
Grandage returns to the stage fresh from filming My police officer, also starring Emma Corrin. In a way, that delicate story of a closeted gay police officer who falls in love in 1950s Brighton is the reverse of Orlando, demonstrating the damage done when people cannot freely express who they are. As a gay man, Grandage feels that there is currently a danger of hard-won rights and freedoms being undone. As an example, he cites the overthrow of Roe vs Wade.
“This is the first time in my adult life that all the progress made by different communities has felt fragile and not taken for granted,” he says. “I hope we never have to return to a society where you can’t be who you are.”
That’s one of the reasons his theater company sticks to the practice of selling 25 per cent of tickets for £10, despite the effect of rising prices on the cost of running a show. “We know that most of those tickets go to 16-26 year olds,” he says, adding that the West End needs to attract the widest possible audience.
“In the centre of Orlando are two great existential questions: who am I and who do I love? And during the play, you go from that 15-year-old boy in Elizabethan England asking that question to a 36-year-old woman in 2022 saying, ‘Yeah, I feel like I can answer these questions somehow now .’ To go through that beautiful arc after all we’ve all been through on the planet seems to be another reason to do this piece.
Until February 25, 2023, michaelgrandagecompany.com
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