Orlando, Virginia Woolf’s amusing challenge to the norms of society, stemmed from her own life and that of her lover Vita Sackville-West, but in her novel, the eponymous hero's life spans five centuries in various incarnations, challenging gender descriptions and experiencing life as both a man and a woman. No surprise, therefore, that this forms part of the Outsiders Season at Jermyn Street Theatre, where it fits in very well, as it does in the age in which we live.

literary fidelity and gender fluidity

Born into nobility, Orlando (Taylor McClaine) soon moves to the royal court and becomes the chosen one of Queen Elizabeth I in whose reign our story begins, for it is indeed a tale that is shared, in a forthright manner by a storytellers, with everyone in the theatre and indeed on the stage. Scenes from around Europe are performed by a chorus of three (Tigger Blaize, Rosalind Lailey and Stanton Wright) taking on numerous roles, ringing the changes as a lead character but with the whole cast providing passages of narrative and commentary throughout.

The arrival of the Russian Princess Sasha (Skye Hallam) brings about the first of several romantic diversions for Orlando, who now discovers the feeling of love but soon learns how fleeting a relationship can be when she leaves without him for her home country. Time moves on and under a new monarch Orlando is appointed as ambassador to Constantinople where he disappears under the sheets of his four-poster bed and mysteriously sleeps for several days only to awaken as a woman. Thus begins the experience of seeing the world from a different perspective. It is not until the reign of Queen Victoria that he finally marries before moving on to wonder at the marvels of the twentieth century.

Given the original, it’s inevitable that Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation necessarily requires the direction from Stella Powell-Jones, assisted by associate and movement director Elliot Pritchard, to flit from scene to scene with many changes of costume ranging from the simply symbolic to the glamorous period, courtesy of designer Emily Stuart. Ceci Calf’s set, with its onstage proscenium, acts as a reminder that we are watching performers perform and often in almost pantomime style. It is also suitably adaptable to the passing years and settings, whether on land or at sea. Each member of the cast makes playful use of everything at their disposal and successfully meets the demands that the many changes make of them.

If there is a weakness in Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of Orlando it is perhaps her faithfulness to the original which creates a script heavy in third person narrative. That, of course, is a no-win situation and devotees of Woolf will no doubt be delighted that she has followed so closely what Woolf wrote and be thankful for the accuracy of its transfer to the stage. The production can thus boast literary fidelity and gender fluidity.

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The Blurb

Growing up as an Elizabethan pageboy and skating on the frozen Thames, Orlando never imagines he’ll travel to Turkey. Or get married in the reign of Queen Victoria. Or live long enough to answer the telephone. He definitely isn’t expecting to wake up as a woman one day. But if you stick around for five centuries, life is bound to get interesting… 

Virginia Woolf’s 1920s masterpiece was written in tribute to her lover, Vita Sackville West. This dazzling stage adaptation is by Sarah Ruhl, two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee and Tony Award nominee. Stella Powell-Jones, recently Deputy Director at Jermyn Street Theatre, directs this time-travelling romp. 

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