Propelled by their arresting turn as Princess Diana in ‘The Crown’, Emma Corrin is on course to become Britain’s first big non-binary acting star. And while that’ll largely be as a result of portraying women on screen, the less commercially driven world of the stage is an opportunity to combine their mounting draw as an actor with work a little more explorative of gender.
‘Orlando’ is, in theory, the perfect vehicle. Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel – in part a tribute to her convention-defying lover Vita Sackville-West – is an exuberant, accessible romp that follows the long life of Orlando, an immortal, gender-switching androgyne.
But this adaptation by Neil Bartlett and directed by Michael Grandage is a fluffed opportunity, a strange mix of fiddly overwroughtness and excessive brevity.
The bemulleted Corrin is great, and their initial entrance is a hoot: wearing a nightshirt and no pants, we see a cheeky flash of prosthetic willy as Orlando is introduced as a teenage Elizabethan boy. As the play progresses, Corrin shifts deftly from urchinish youngster to lovelorn young man to posh, poised woman with surprising subtlety. The odd dress aside, Orlando never really looks any different, they just feel different. Corrin deftly code-switches between masculinity and feminity on an almost subliminal level – it’s pure body language, gender as a literal performance.
Bartlett’s big invention is to have a sort of chorus of Virginia Woolfs on hand to narrate, commentate, and occasionally join in. It’s a striking act of whimsy to have most of the cast – including sole male member Oliver Wickham – in identical skirts, cardigans, glasses and wigs. And clearly ‘Orlando’ is a book that lends itself to a certain formal silliness. But really that base is covered by Deborah Findlay’s entertaining realisation of pre-existing character Mrs Grimsditch, Orlando’s pathologically down-to-earth housekeeper. She doesn’t so much as raise an eyebrow at any aspect of her master-slash-mistress’s centuries-long life (she too seems to be incidentally immortal), and Bartlett has given her several mischievous allusions to contemporary gender politics that puncture any sense this might get too worthy.
But stuffing all the extra stuff plus the actual plot of the novel into 90 minutes means Woolf’s text is boiled down to a glancing greatest-hits package. Orlando’s relationship with Elizabeth I is basically reduced to a monologue; we get Woolf’s famously virtuoso description of the frozen London of 1608 quoted word for word, but young Orlando’s relationship with Millicent Wong’s Sasha is too fleeting to leave much impression on us, despite its big impact on the young man. I think Bartlett and Grandage do convey a sense of the mischief in Woolf’s book, but frequently they’ve done so at the expense of the actual story, and it seems daft that both can’t be accommodated.
I was also extremely not down with the way the Woolf chorus end up musing sadly about the author’s suicide. It just seemed crass and gratuitous: ‘Orlando’ famously ends ebulliently unresolved, on the date the book was first published. Yes, Woolf died, some years later, but I’d question how relevant this is to ‘Orlando’.
But let’s not get distracted by a questionable decision late on. There are lots of good things about this ‘Orlando’, but it’s just too brief, to not enough end. It’s fun, but it’s not doing full justice to either Virginia Woolf’s book or Emma Corrin’s performance – an extra half an hour could have made a real difference.