Review: Orlando, Manchester Royal Exchange
Published in The Guardian, 02.03.2014
Orlando is a young man of 16 when Elizabeth I takes a shine to his legs. More than a century later, he wakes up one morning as a woman in her 30s and he – she – stays that way through to the present. That combination of gender-swap and epoch-hop provides the thrust of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando: a Biography. For, while the grass remains green and the sky, blue, what it means to be male or female changes over time. Gender shifts with fashion and etiquette, so that the Georgian flirt becomes the buttoned-up Victorian. It is, as Orlando discovers on first attempting daintiness in a dress, all an act – learned behaviour. Even love and lust defy it.
Published in the year that women won equal voting rights, Orlando has the tone of a Candide or Gulliver’s Travels: huge in its scope and yet helium-light. Orlando experiences week-long trances, while outside it freezes – so hard that porpoises are trapped in the Thames. It all suits the stage like a dream, slippery and fantastical, and Sarah Ruhl’s 10-year old adaptation is a swift precis that never feels filleted as it muses on identity, history and human subjectivity.
Max Webster directs a tumble-turning production that finds enough breathing space to express the zero-gravity heart-swell of love through aerial routines and cloudbursts of feathers. Ti Green’s carnivalesque design dances through the space, while Isobel Waller-Bridge’s gorgeous cello score sighs and twinkles alongside.
Suranne Jones’s Orlando is never offstage, the pivot around which the world pirouettes – and she is superb. So much so that, after a half-hour looking like a young David Tennant in doublet and hose, her transformation comes as a real jolt. Jones toys with androgyny brilliantly – bumping up against gender, or floating above it.
The play is worth it for some of Woolf’s one-liners – as expressed by Ruhl – alone: “Nothing more disorders time than contact with the arts.” It’s true: these two hours – and 400 years – fly by in a flash.
Photograph: Royal Exchange