Banana Barrel Theatre, Edinburgh – unti 22 April 2017
Some Kind of Theatre’s quirky and comprehensive take on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando – at the Banana Barrel theatre to Saturday – plays directly with its literary antecedents. This is the story of the forever young Duke Orlando who wakes from a deep, trancelike sleep to discover that he is now a she. Neither ageing naturally nor staying the same gender for long, it’s as if Dr Who had found himself taking a walk on Lou Reed’s wild side.
Director Emily Ingram’s adaptation certainly plays nicely with Woolf’s most famous, gender-swapping attributes for her creation. When the change happens, Orlando’s realisation of what she can’t do and the constraints on her actions, now that she is a woman, are brought out with no little irony – she is still the same person inside.
And much wry amusement comes from Orlando’s complete failure to learn how to converse and interact with the many women he professes his love to. The kind of love he holds for women has no need to explain or even promote itself to its recipient, but is pointedly self-interested.
It helps that Elsa Van Der Wal creates a strongly androgynous character for her initial, male, Orlando. She has the physicality done well, all strutting gait and open arrogance, without overplaying it. Yet she also has the fresh-faced charm of youth, called for in the plot as she charms James Sullivan’s sour-faced old Queen Elizabeth.
While it is the gender politics which catch the irony button best, it is the literary aspect which excerpts the strongest influence on the whole production. Pushing through hard with Orlando’s pretensions as a poet – echoing those of Virginia Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West, on who the whole fiction is, of course, based.
The literary aspect is strongly influential on Sarah Willier’s design. Her costumes have lines of hand writing across them and integrate book pages into ruffs and skirts, while the transverse playing area is itself book-ended by a writing desk at one end and a giant book, presumably the one which is being written, at the other.
It is all overseen by the alert and bright-eyed, Lucy Davidson as the Writer. She is already at her desk as the audience arrive, catching their eye as if for inspiration and keenly scribbling in her jotter. She narrates the whole piece, pacing the playing area as necessary and adding extra characters by way of a skull or a touch, at the right moment.
Both Davidson and Van de Wal have just the right level of hyper-reality to them, believable within the confines of a tale that twists within its never explained plot device of eternal life for Orlando. The other four in the ensemble create a variety of characters with a variety of levels of success.
Camilla Makhmudova is excellent as Sasha, the Russian princess who Orlando meets ice skating and who breaks his heart. There is perhaps too much subtlety to the unfaithful nature of the critical and heart-breaking liaison, but she has all the haughty attitude you would want for someone who is to teach Orlando his big life lessons in love.
The male characters – mostly poets – are much less pleasing. Which is as it should be in many regards, but by giving them such little depth that they would look uni-dimensional in a pantomime does not help the narrative. It is just too distracting to their purpose here. And it is an attitude which bleeds through into James Sullivan, John Spilsbury and Gerry Kielty’s playing of female characters.
The only exception is Spilsbury’s portrayal of Marmaduke Shelmerdine, Orlando’s husband of some time, when she has already lived through several centuries. There’s a knowing sense of the ridiculous to him, but there is depth that is not seen elsewhere.
If Ingram’s directorial decision on the matter does not quite come off, it does serve to underline her purpose. And does not detract overly from what is a thoroughly entertaining production – and one that serves both as introduction to its source material and a pleasure for those who already know it.