Edinburgh Fringe 2018
Based on the satirical 1928 novel by Virginia Woolf Orlando is the tale of a poet, whose gender cannot be pinned down, whose spirit cannot be caged and whose romantic adventures across British history provide a exploration of human identity; personal, sexual and national.
Dyad productions are a Fringe fixture now, familiar to many repeat visitors for hit shows such as Austen’s Women, Jane Eyre and The Time Machine. This production of Orlando (derived from Woolf’s novel by playwright Elton Townend-Jones) will not dent their reputation any and at 90 minutes the appreciative audience of regulars and new alike will have got their money’s worth. Orlando, in a consummate solo performance by Rebecca Vaughan, is a likeable and intriguing companion and his/her life full of adventure. The delicate soundscape (Danny Bright) and subtle and intricate lighting (Martin Tucker) complement Vaughan’s storytelling so thoughtfully. Orlando is a precocious teenager in the later reign of Elizabeth the First and his career courses a blazing trail through the courts of the Stewarts and Hanovers at home, in Europe and in Turkey. As a woman Orlando takes her place in the literary society of the Victorians, Edwardians and finally into the present day. Again her performance is enhanced by clever costume changes and Kate Flanaghan’s designs are a delight to look at and to marvel at the mechanics of.
A role such as Orlando takes a while beyond the rehearsal room to bed in. First the learning of all those thousands of words, and Vaughan is word perfect, worthy of the standing ovation this performance achieved. Then the development of the character whilst mastering both male and female and ageing from teenager to adulthood, again done with a blazing display of bravura. In a future performance I look forward to the actor pushing the boundaries to really capture the depths of depression and excitable mania which are both part of Orlando’s psyche. Although she addresses the audience throughout it all felt as though Orlando was behind glass, controlled and contained and consequently even though Vaughan has tremendous energy what would add even more are moments of rawness, a real peak or two in the drama. Orlando’s adventures are exciting but what we need is a character that is more three dimensional. An audience can handle silence too and though the knowing voice over was fun perhaps an actual pause would be more effective.
It would also help sustained audience engagement for the play to be shorter. As Woolf herself explained an hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or one hundred times its clock length. On tour playing to an audience who has come out for an evening’s entertainment 90 minutes topped and tailed with breathing space in a foyer bar is fine but perhaps Dyad should have a Fringe version of Orlando; cutting a chunk of this text (an episode or three) would not diminish what the play is really about – an exploration of a fantastical character whose enquiring mind encourages us to look at the lives we live today, our attitudes and prejudices. Current preoccupations of our 21st century culture such as non-binary expressions of sexuality and gender fluidity are woven into the tapestry of other themes of personal growth and development of a moral compass. Even Bowie – our timeless genius of multiple identities and famed androgyny – gets a name check.
Although in the novel Woolf uses Orlando’s attempts to write one great poem, The Oak Tree, as a recurring motif, on stage this is less successful and it is worth reflecting that audiences need less visual reminders; the repeat appearances of this prop began to reinforce how long we had been sitting in the theatre. Knowledge of Woolf’s novel is not essential for enjoyment of Dyad’s Orlando although the novel’s many fans will appreciate another adaptation of it, this time for the stage. It is one of those literary works that has many devotees not only because it was ground breaking stylistically when it was published but also because it is assumed to be autobiographical of Woolf’s state of mind and desires. It is impossible when Orlando talks of his crippling depression not to feel the pain of the author and although Dyad wanted to present a lighter piece to celebrate their 10th Anniversary there are moments of poignancy and sadness which are a fitting reflection of Woolf’s full, marvellous and troubled life.