Reviews, Stage, Theatre

Orlando: Jacqueline McKenzie shines in Woolf's historical romp

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It’s now nearly nine decades since Virginia Woolf published Orlando: A Biography, but the story of a nobleman who lived for four centuries and inexplicably changed from a man to a woman halfway through her life retains all of its audacious and subversive power. Inspired by Woolf’s relationship with the extraordinary and eccentric writer Vita Sackville-West, the title character is touched by events and major figures from England’s history and discovers how his identity is shaped by the “spirit of the age”, and the gender in which he happened to be born into and the gender which she suddenly and miraculously came to embody.
In adapting the book for the stage, American playwright Sarah Ruhl has used much of Woolf’s text and retained its light and satirical spirit, as well as its incident-packed narrative. Just as Woolf explored and shook up the structure and conventions of biography, Ruhl does so by using on-stage narrators as biographers who pull details of Orlando’s long life into sharp focus, briskly leap over others, and ignore many altogether.
In one scene, Orlando is falling for one of her great lovers, but the biographers determine that we needn’t hear any of the two hours of small talk between them because a) nobody can be entirely sure what they said and b) it was undoubtedly insignificant. A brief snippet of small talk might just reveal more about a person than a recount of every “significant” event of a person’s life, but a biography necessarily has its own rules and priorities.
It’s also no coincidence that the biographers — the writers of history who are able to shape the story of Orlando — are all played by men in this production directed by Sydney Theatre Company resident director Sarah Goodes. There’s John Gaden, who turns in a memorable performance as Queen Elizabeth I, Garth Holcombe, who has an excellent comedic turn as an Archduke and Archduchess, Anthony Taufa, who gets to briefly flex his Shakespearean muscle, and Matthew Backer, who is effortlessly suave as Marmaduke and embodies the female characters with more truth than the other three — mostly because he doesn’t explicitly “perform” the gender.
Goodes’ production moves with great pace and style, and is blessed with an extraordinarily generous performance from Jacqueline McKenzie in the leading role, constantly reaching out to the audience.
McKenzie starts out as the vivacious and passionate 16-year-old boy and transforms into a beautiful young woman with only the slightest changes to her voice and mannerisms — mostly those necessitated by the wardrobe change from male to female. McKenzie’s Orlando never loses that youthful, unstoppable creative energy and joie de vivre, but four centuries do eventually take their toll on our young hero and an emotional tiredness sneaks in as she creeps closer towards the present moment.
McKenzie is particularly charming as the young man Orlando falling in love with a beautiful Russian princess Sasha, played brilliantly with a seductive, tough and regal quality by Luisa Hastings Edge. Sasha’s betrayal of Orlando is a pivotal moment in his life, but when Orlando eventually becomes a woman she comes to understand that women are innately no better built for loyalty and chastity than men are.
It’s at this point where the work becomes feminist in its focus — although nothing about the core of Orlando as a person changes when her gender changes, she is treated fundamentally differently by all the people around her. Even the law treats her differently — she’s no longer able to own property because of a simple biological fact.
Orlando then realises just how much of her life was determined by her gender — first as a man and then as a woman. And apart from the way Orlando’s story will be told (by those rogue biographers) what else in her life has never really been under her control?
These are all big questions which Orlando (and the audience) must look inward to answer. This is an essentially introspective work which plays with notions of who we are publicly, who we are privately, and how we relate to the communities in which we happen to be placed.
Of course, it’s difficult to be as introspective on stage as you might be in a novel, but Renee Mulder’s set indicates that element of introspection with mirrors and other reflective surfaces. It also uses two staircases atop a circular revolving stage, like a giant clock with two hands on its face, spinning quickly at times and halting to stretch time out at others.
Ruhl and Goodes allow all of Woolf’s biggest questions about identity to linger in the air while Orlando quickly leaps from century to century. Occasionally you do get the sense that there are deeper resonances in Woolf’s text which could be more obviously ploughed and projected. But they’re almost all there, hanging in the (admittedly brief) silences between words.
[box]Orlando is at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until December 19. Featured image by Prudence Upton[/box]

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