Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Orlando, Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester 1/3/14

Based on the novel by Virginia Woolf and adapted for the stage by Sarah Ruhl, this is an unusual tale. It tells the story of Orlando, a young man in the 17th century, who has a string of relationships, including a brief dalliance with Elizabeth I and a passionate love affair with a Russian princess. After fleeing abroad, one night he falls into a deep stupor for a week, and upon waking finds he has been transformed into a young woman, a state he finds himself in, never aging, for the next 400 years, which we see through a snapshot of events and encounters that examine the ‘place’ of a woman in terms of gender roles and expectations, and the nature of love through the centuries.

This is an energetic and fast paced production with plenty of humour. With the help of an excellent ‘chorus’ (Richard Hope, Thomas Arnold and Tunji Kasim) , who along with Orlando, provide narration, but also step in and out of the roles of various participants in events, forever with their tongues firmly in their cheeks, we romp through the adventures of the central character. There are a number of inventive and magical touches woven into the actions including puppetry, fantastical costumes, graceful aerial acrobatics, and gorgeous music, providing in part by on stage musician Hetti Price.

There are many layers to this tale, especially I imagine if you are already familiar with the novel. As a newcomer to it I found that once I surrendered to its surreal nature I found it totally mesmerising, magical, graceful and very funny in parts. The style reminded me in some ways of a previous Exchange production, Rats Tales as the stories played out before me. 

Suranne Jones in the title role was simply superb and totally captivating. She has just an amazing stage presence, and a great grace and balance to her portrayal. It really was a privilege to witness her clever and accomplished performance in the intimate setting of the Exchange. 

This was a wonderful production. Clever, almost exhausting to experience, funny, touching and skilful. Bravo!


  1. I tend to avoid dramatisations of novels, especially novels I’ve read, to avoid disappointment. It’s a purely personal thing – after all, much of the great drama in history has been based on stories that already existed in another form – but when I go against my rule (most recently with The Master and Margarita and Nineteen Eighty Four) I’ve often been disappointed. An exception was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time but, significantly, I haven’t read Mark Haddon’s novel. I made an exception for Orlando mainly because of Suranne Jones who impressed me deeply as Marlene in Top Girls some time ago; and I consciously tried to put the novel (and Sally Potter’s film) out of my mind and treat the drama on its own merits.

    Of course you can’t completely erase the memory of a fine piece of literature and I was being a bit disingenuous anyway because I’m not sure I’d have gone, even for Suranne Jones, if the play had been given a different title and billed as the work of Sarah Ruhl. In fact, there was quite a bit of Virginia Woolf’s prose in the piece but it served as mere linking narrative and was stripped of its eloquent beauty. I thought they did quite a good job of bringing the story to life (though the transformation scene was a major cop out) using simple devices – for example the illuminated model ships and buildings were an inspired choice in a theatre where attempting to mock up nautical scenes or palatial grandeur would almost certainly have been unconvincing. I was less happy with the aerial stuff, which struck me as somewhat gratuitous. The live music* was also very fine – to the point where I found the recorded stuff that underpinned it a bit of an annoyance.

    I agree with you about Suranne Jones. It was a sparkling performance though I thought its sheer brilliance rather marginalised the rest of the cast. Even Molly Gromadzki’s Sasha seemed pale by comparison with Jones’s Orlando. I suppose some of the more egregious depictions might have been intended to bolster the ensemble parts but the cross dressing was more in the pantomime dame category than anything - and it was impossible not to compare the queen (unfavourably) with Quentin Crisp’s extraordinary film portrayal. Indeed if you approach the whole production as a magical panto-cum-fairy tale piece it works quite well. But then we come back to my earlier question: would I have been tempted to go and see it without the Virginia Woolf connection?

    *does anyone know if Isobel Waller-Bridge is any relation to Phoebe – who I saw a couple of year’s ago in Hay Fever and again last week in a disturbing, but gripping and darkly comic, short play called ‘The One’ at the Soho Theatre, London?

  2. Hi John, thanks for your comments. really interesting to hear the perspective of someone that has a bit more background knowledge of the source material and other stagings than I have. Personally, whilst I found Suranne Jones' performance fantastic, I think it was also very generous, I never felt she upstaged the action. I loved the chorus, thought it kept the pace cracking along well and was especially impressed with Tunji Kasim. I enjoyed the aerial stuff, although I would concede that it wouldn't have suffered from a bit less of it.

    Good to hear a recommendation for 'Curious..' as I've bagged a ticket for that when it comes to The Lowry in December. As I know you go to London a lot, do you have any current recommendations for me, I'll be there in a couple of weeks for a few nights. Alison

  3. Hi Alison

    I hope I'm not cluttering up the Orlando thread to answer your request for recommendations. If there's a more appropriate place please let me know. Tops for me - an absolute knockout of a production - is Ghosts at the Trafalgar Studios but you need to be a bit sharpish as it has to close (after a transfer from the Almeida and an extension to the run at the TS) on 22 March. A Taste of Honey at the NT (Lyttelton) is a fine revival of an underrated play (and set in Salford, of course). The Weir at Wyndhams Theatre also gets a thumbs up though some way behind the other two if you're putting them in order. Vicky Jones's The One at the Soho Theatre is interesting but really not for the easily offended (in fact if it had been written by a man I bet he'd have been called all the misogynists under the sun; but it is wickedly funny in parts and short enough not to waste too much of your time if you hate it). King Lear at the NT (Olivier) is not to be missed even though I was mildly disappointed having had unrealistically high expectations of Simon Russell Beale & Sam Mendes. Sam Troughton as Edmund is very fine - some of the others rather less so. If I think of anything else I'll let you know. If you need any guidance on how to get cheap seats or how to get in to 'sold out' productions let me know - for now I'm assuming you know a fair bit about how these things work but if you don't I'm happy to help.

  4. Wow thanks John. Toddling up to the tkts booth in Leics Sq is about the totality of my 'cheap tickets knowledge. I also stumbled across the 'day tickets' phenomena once and got a 65 ticket for 25. I quite like the Russian roulette nature of tkts. Seen some great things through that with no preconceptions! I have to admit to having treated myself to a Matilda ticket for the Sunday though, I thought that was amazing!

  5. Ps, I'm now in awe of all the amazing stuff you've seen!

  6. You flatter me, Alison. It’s true that I get about a bit – but so do you and your taste is more catholic than mine. You won’t see me at musicals (opera, yes; but not musicals), children’s shows or feelgood comedies.

    Day tickets are my staple in London because I can seldom plan far enough ahead to book affordable seats in advance. London day seats are brilliant with many of them being under £15 and often being in the front row. If you have time to join the morning queue at the NT you can get in to things that just can’t be booked in advance any more – King Lear, for example: I queued from 0650 and was second in the queue but I estimate that anyone who got there by 0830 on that morning would have got a seat. And – something not many people seem to know – they sell standing places at £5 for any performance where the seats are completely sold out; so even if you can’t queue early it’s worth phoning to ask if they have any standing room left. They usually have – I saw lots of unoccupied standing places for Lear even though every seat was occupied. Wyndhams is doing £10 day seats (front row) for The Weir and the view is great (no craning your neck to see above the lip of the stage as in some front row seats. Trafalgar Studios often does day seats for its larger stage (I got them for Top Girls and The Pride, for example) though its smaller studio seldom has them in my experience. I don’t know if they have them for Ghosts but with it being an Almeida production I’d guess the chances are better than even. The Soho only charges £17.50 flat rate for The One – unreserved so just get there early to choose your own seat. The Leicester Square booth (I presume you only go to the official one at the south end of the gardens) is not bad but day tickets are better if you have time to queue. If you want any more details about how the system works ask me – but the theatres will tell you if you ask. They don’t usually advertise it but if you walk in to the box office and ask ‘do you have a day seat scheme for this production’ they’ll usually let you know how much the tickets are, where the seats are and when they go on sale. They usually go on sale to personal callers only (limit 2 per person) from the time the box office opens. As the name suggests, the tickets are only for that day – you can’t buy a Thursday day seat on Wednesday. The NT ones cost £12 (front row stalls in the Lyttelton, back row circle in The Olivier) but they’re going up to £15 next month. Shows that I know do day seats (but which don’t appeal to me) are Jeeves and Wooster at The Duke of York (£25); The Bodyguard at The Adelphi (?) and Stephen Ward at The Aldwych (£25). The Duck House at The Vaudeville has £10 front row day seats. I saw it for Ben Miller and wasn’t impressed but it’s an option if you’re at a loose end. There will be lots of others, too. The Harold Pinter, The Haymarket, The Apollo, The Gielgud and the Donmar are all venues that usually keep back a few dozen seats to sell cheaply to personal callers on the day of performance. I hope you have a wonderful time. My next scheduled London visit will be mid-April sometime.

    (continued below)

  7. I do more advance booking for productions nearer home. Liverpool Everyman is reopening on Saturday with Twelfth Night and the Playhouse has A View From the Bridge at the end of the month. I’m also booked up for Howard Brenton’s Eternal Love (the soppy new name for his Abelard & Heloise treatment that was called In Extremis when it was on at The Globe) at Blackpool Grand; and Entertaining Mr Sloane at Oldham Coliseum.

    Have you tried the student productions at MMU’s Capitol Theatre? These are consistently well acted and imaginatively produced. The only problem is that they only do four performances of each play. The good thing for me, though, is that the Thursday performance of each run is a 1800 start meaning I can get my last train home (If I go to the Royal Exchange or The Lowry I usually have to go to a matinee so I can get to Oxford Road for 2212). The MMU’s spring season finishes with A Midsummer Night’s Dream the week after next but their website is worth bookmarking to see what they’re doing in future seasons.