usual writerly advice is to always “show, not tell”, then biography is arguably
one of the few artistic forms where a certain amount of direct
author-to-audience explanation is permissible—even in a fictional biography
such as Virginia Woolf’s
this is an entertaining, informed adaptation, which offers enough meat to satisfy the appetites of both those familiar with the book, and those who are not.
Indeed, much of the texture of Woolf’s book is regularly hinted at thanks to the rest of the cast going well beyond their own dialogue, providing a degree of detailed audio-description to aspects of a scene beyond the capabilities of either set or performance space. This enables the company to instead concentrate their limited resources on a somewhat abstract tree, its branches heavy with pages from a printed book, and a giant wall covered by similar pages over which, in turn, childish drawings had been scrawled to give an impression of, among other things, the feel of industrial revolution.
Woolf’s Orlando is essentially a literary critique of the past 300 years, its central conceit being the literary pretensions of the forever young Duke Orlando. Originally a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I—“the once great Queen” now “in the winter of her years”—Orlando survives into the early decades of the 20th century with barely a wrinkle. The only change regards gender; after falling into a deep “strange sleep” Orlando awakes to find he’s now a she. Elsa Van Der Wal provides a genuinely androgynous performance, shifting physicality from strutting young manhood to a more graceful womanhood without unnecessary exaggeration.
Admittedly, while providing numerous opportunities to highlight the hypocrisies of society—then and now—when discriminating between men and women, the essential core character of Orlando remains unchanged, to the extent that you often wonder if it’s really that big a deal as everyone (bar Orlando herself) thinks it is. Nor is it entirely clear the extent to which Ingram believes Woolf’s Orlando is about sexual politics; the print-dominated set dressing emphasises the literary focus, but the frequent gender-flipped casting suggests otherwise. Then again, the latter might be less directorial flourish, more a case of limiting cast availability.
Gerry Kielty, Cailla Makhmudova, John Spilsbury and James Sullivan provide some genuinely strong support in a succession of all-too-briefly glimpsed supporting characters, even if many—the male characters in particular—prove to be little more than pencil sketches at best, with an touch of pantomime exuberance. Otherwise, this is an entertaining, informed adaptation, which offers enough meat to satisfy the appetites of both those familiar with the book, and those who are not.