A bubbly bunch of fresh, fun actors and Max Webster’s beautiful production add up to an absolute treat at the Royal Exchange Theatre. It’s light, musical and dance-like – not, perhaps, things you’d expect from a script that tackles some fairly full-on themes, including gender identity, the meaning of time, love and poetry.
The theme of Orlando, adapted from Virginia Wolf’s novel, is thus:‘Imagine: What would it be like to live for four hundred years? How would it feel to be both a man and a woman?’ We don’t have to imagine, of course, because this is exactly what happens to Orlando, a servant and budding poet in the court of Elizabeth I whose life ends up spanning four centuries up to the 20th, and who does indeed suddenly become a woman.
Musician Hetti Price opens with the cello and switches to viola, to violin and back to cello, creating an ethereal movement in the play that flows from start to finish. This is punctuated by some fantastic choreography (thanks to movement artist Liz Ranken) that includes an amazing scene where actors swoop over the heads of the audience on ropes.
Charles Balfour’s inventive lighting – coloured washes and a glowing skeleton puppet that walks onstage – adds to the sense of magic and brings to life the minimalist props – a billowing bed sheet as an icy landscape, and a table covered in fake flowers as a ‘banquet’.
And then there are the actors, who take to Sarah Ruhl’s fantastically witty script with gumption. Suranne Jones is boyish and innocent in the title role and handles the costume changes and acrobatics of the title role well, while Molly Gromadzki is appropriately willowy and seductive as Princess Sasha, the girl Orlando falls passionately in love with. But it’s the role-swapping, gender-bending chorus who are the most fun to watch, and who carry the show along in a riot of bouncy slapstick.
Richard Hope’s starring role is as Elizabeth I, turning the monarch into a shocking, aggressively sexualised Widow Twankey. He (or she…) appears resplendent in a vast gown lit with fairy lights – and trousers very visible beneath to big up that cross-dressing theme again.
The pick of Thomas Arnold’s performances is when he becomes a Romanian aristocrat, who hurtles between being exceptionally dull and exceptionally rampant. Tunji Kasim shines right towards the end of the show as Shelmerdine – the man Orlando eventually marries. The character is as confused with his gender identity as the show’s protagonist, and the fragility with which Kasim and Jones deliver the scene is very touching.
Post-modernist feminism (or however you want to term Virginia Woolf) might not be everyone’s cup of tea, and there are still some who will roll their eyes when they hear lines like: ‘She was a man; she was a woman; she shared the secrets and the weaknesses of each.’ But this fizzy, fun circus of a show should work its magic on most audiences – and make all but the most hardened sceptics forget themselves.