Orlando, adapted by Sarah Ruhl from the novel by Virginia Woolf | Directed by Sarah Goodes

Sydney Theatre Company (https://www.sydneytheatre.com.au) | Sydney Opera House | Until 19 December

“In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above.” – Virginia Woolf, Orlando

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is a chronicle of the life and substance of Virginia Woolf’s friend and lover, writer Vita Sackville-West. But it is more poetic novel than biography. Sackville-West’s bisexuality and refusal to submit to the gendered norms of the day is encapsulated in the main character’s switch from male to female protagonist.

Yes, that’s right. Orlando goes to sleep a man and awakens a week later a woman. Within and around this transformation, Woolf insightfully explores a broad range of themes, from the serious difficulty of artistic expression and the shackles of gender to a more tongue-in-cheek treatise on the “disease” of the privileged class’s taste for books and writing.

I was curious as to how Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation, and director Sarah Goodes’ creative team, could bring such a novel to the stage. How on Earth were they going to present Orlando, who is 36 by the end of the play but lives over the course of three centuries? As Andrew Upton writes, how would they imbue “this new telling with the concision and animation of theatre, while retaining the essence and poetry of the original?”

It was, then, with some skepticism that I settled in for the show. But within a few minutes of curtain up I knew that we the audience – and Woolfe – were in good hands.

Designer Renee Mulder, along with Damien Cooper (lighting designer), Alan John (musical director and composer) and Steve Francis (sound designer) have created a dynamic canvas upon which the talented ensemble can work their broad brushstrokes. Mulder’s costume designs are colourful and garish and capture each period with a cartoon realism.

The role of biographer is taken up by a chorus of modern-day men (Matthew Backer, John Gaden, Garth Holcombe and Anthony Taufa). Constantly moving, transforming the set to symbolically represent any period and any scene, they skillfully take us through Orlando’s life and its ever-changing characters.

The essence of the novel is echoed in the play as Goodes uses much of Woolfe’s narration verbatim. Luisa Hastings Edge, sometime member of this chorus, also takes on the role of Sasha, Orlando’s first great love.

I have to offer many thanks to Jacqueline McKenzie for taking the role of Orlando – a role that has such resonance in the queer and feminist communities – and giving it a truth and vitality that it deserves.

I do need to point out that I viewed the show as a fan of Virginia Woolfe. Part of my enjoyment came from the delight at seeing how cleverly the cast and crew portrayed the various scenes of the novel in the theatrical space. It’s hard to imagine how much sense or otherwise audience members who are unfamiliar with the novel would make of it.



Above: Garth Holcombe, John Gaden, Matthew Backer and Anthony Taufa. All images: Prudence Upton.

Jacqueline McKenzie.

Luisa Hastings Edge and Jacqueline McKenzie.