Garrick Theatre, London – until 25 February 2022
One bespectacled, anxious-looking Virginia Woolf in a sensible brown skirt and dreary cardigan is never enough, so Michael Grandage’s production generously opens with a whole pack of Woolfs – nine of them – in Neil Bartlett’s new version of the author’s classic whimsical-feminist fantasy.
They/She are there to tell, and assist with, the story of a young court favourite of Elizabeth I who miraculously lives on as an innocent everyperson, barely growing older while finding love, loss and adventure and changing into a woman sometime between the Georgian and Victorian eras. And, crucially, particularly resenting being female in the latter.
Which is fair enough, since that was when Woolf was born, and out of which she and her heroines and her lover Vita Sackville West had to struggle until her suicide in 1944.
The crowd of Woolfs is effective, expressing the human need to be a lot of different people, not trapped in one role. There’s a nice irony in that, since our age’s gender-neurosis and clenched identity politics often feel more like a trap than the freedom Orlando demands to “honour happiness, and obey desire in whatever form it comes”. The book is perennially interesting, and indeed a recent far lower-budget version at the Jermyn Street Theatre sent me to it, charmed by that production’s particular comic edge and unselfconscious jollity.
But Bartlett’s version somehow felt a bit disappointing: insubstantial though witty and mischievous, sometimes cheekily mashing up some awful cod-Shakespeare (I like the ‘lustful porpentine’) and pinching allusions from both Some Like It Hot and Cabaret.
The staging is lovely: mist in the 1603 Frost Fair in London, constant movement and Peter McKintosh’s absolutely glorious costumes – not just on the divine Orlando but whipped on and off as the Woolfs become all the other characters he/she meets. There are some good jokes, too, and Deborah Findlay as “Mrs Grimsditch” the dresser-minder who escorts Orlando through the centuries is a treat every time. It ought in theory to be a bang-on treat for the genderfluid generation, but the one I took with me was a bit unimpressed: felt it old-fashioned in the distinction. He also observed that if it had been at the Edinburgh Fringe it would have fitted. Whereas here, up West… not so much.
We also agreed in wishing Bartlett had courageously added a coda in which Orlando powers through women’s liberation and arrives in the present day to mix it with our own preconceptions. But once the author dies in the 1940s, it stops, there’s only a bit of be-happy philosophy and a walk into the light. Also, maybe some of the encounters with great poets in the original had been allowed in, it would feel a richer stew.
Never mind. One thing’s for sure: Emma Corrin is going to get lovelorn proposals from most of the alleged 74 genders. They don’t come any cuter, more androgyne gamin/gamine, from the first cheeky flash of ‘his’ tackle under an Elizabethan shift to the frills of “her” 18c underdrawers and the 1940s tennis-dress. There is gallant likeability there too, and if you were paying one of MGC’a promised 10,000 tickets at £10, you’d be well satisfied. Recreationally if not, perhaps, intellectually. Still , to be fair there are also a lot of ordinary tickets under £60 as well, which for an 11-cast production in the West End is impressive these days. So don’t be put off. Fall in love with Corrin, maybe. But don’t expect a thunderclap.
Box office. www.nimaxtheatres.com. to 24 feb