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Katie Mitchell and Alice Birch turn in a breathlessly enjoyable, hyper-intricate stage version of Virginia Woolf's gender-shifting classic
Nobody goes to a Katie Mitchell show to have fun. Nobody sees an Alice Birch play for the lols. They are serious people, who make serious theatre, much of it seriously depressing. And yet the British duo's latest collaboration for Berlin’s revered Schaubühne is an absolute blast.
Maybe that’s not totally unexpected: the source material for ‘Orlando’ is, of course, Virginia Woolf’s ebullient 1928 novel about a gender-swapping immortal, born in Elizabethan England and living on for hundreds of years. Nonetheless, you wouldn’t bet against director Mitchell and writer Birch mining it for melancholy. In fact they’ve gone the other way: this ‘Orlando’ is a riotous, rude and very knowing post-gender romp that gives serious thought to the question of how Woolf might have gone about her story if she absolutely DGAF what society thought.
What that mostly means is: loads of shagging! It’s implied in Woolf, of course, but made very explicit here. Indeed, the Elizabethan scenes have a distinct sex comedy vibe to them as Jenny König’s irresistible-on-several-levels Orlando – at this stage male – proceeds to bang the entire court, including Queen Elizabeth herself, who is for whatever reason first seen dining topless.
We’re not in totally uncharted territory: Mitchell uses her trademark live video techniques. That is to say, while the play is performed live (with a couple of pre-recorded sequences), we mostly watch the action on a large screen, which shows intricately assembled close-up vignettes.
Even this is used hilariously: in the shagging scene, the cameras switch to the gasping face of the next shaggee before König’s Orlando has had a chance to reach them. She charges at full tilt from one conquest to the next, arriving just in time to be seen administering a vigorous doggystyle as the camera slowly pans down the next conquest’s body.
The camera also blows up the diminutive König to giant size. I wonder if she’d have been cast in the role in a more traditional production, given the rest of the cast tower over her. But she is incredibly expressive, and her wide-eyed face – in the first half adorned by an ever-bushier collection of facial hair – dominates, with a mix of ingenue enthusiasm and sardonic knowing. Indeed, if her snarky fourth-wall-breaking looks at the camera aren’t an allusion to ‘Fleabag’, then Mitchell has hit upon the exact same vein of meta-humour (in fairness it’s probably a homage to the Tilda Swinton film, although a joke about the other characters not understanding who Orlando is talking to feels vintage Hot Priest).
The aesthetic is a blast too: an irreverently anachronistic mishmash of styles that often leave you pleasantly baffled as to what time period we’re in.
For all its giddiness, the production is a colossally intricate piece of artifice – and I suppose without being too on-the-nose about it, it’s suggesting the same could be said about gender.
Of course Orlando changes, but in some ways that’s regulated, expected. Around her the cast merrily play men, women, whatever, diving between sexes as they populate this boisterously carefree world. This take on Woolf’s hero(ine) is a celebration of radical freedom: freedom from gender, freedom from time, freedom from care, even freedom from source material. In one scene, the wall is adorned with Millais’s famous painting of Ophelia, a tragic heroine Mitchell and Birch have made work about before. But Orlando is Ophelia’s opposite, unshackled by anything, and getting away with everything.
This review is of an October 2019 performance at the Schaubühne. ‘Orlando’ comes to the Barbican for four performances in April 2020.