Edinburgh Fringe 2011
An hour long adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s playful gender-bending, time-travelling novel, while Theatre Cryptic’s Orlando has many fine elements, including a fine solo performance and technical virtuosity, it doesn’t add up to a coherent whole.
Bursting with life,Orlando is a slim volume, outside of Virginia Woolf’s main body of work. Its time travelling, gender bending protagonist is both playful tribute to Woolf’s close friend, Vita Sackville West and a witty and accomplished deconstruction of modernism. If that makes it sound like a sterile literary exercise, far from it, the words dance off the page and the story is outrageous and wonderful.
Orlando starts his journey as a sixteenth century aristocrat at the court of Queen Elizabeth. He becomes a favourite of hers and she bestows the gift of eternal life on him. From here, his journey takes him across four centuries disregarding natural laws of time and space: tin the Great Frost where he falls for Sasha, to Constantinople as British ambassador, back to Britain where he wakes one morning to find himself transformed into a woman,ends up marrying a sea captain and publishing her poem, The Oak Tree.
Theatre Cryptic has adapted the novel into an hour long dramatic monologue for a solo performance. Darren Pinckney’s fine adaptation stays close to the original and there are occasions where the words rise above everything and seem to sparkle as they hang upon the air. It’s a well written script and one that needs little by way of extra embellishment. However, this is a production with many and various elements: there is a multi-faceted musical soundtrack by Craig Armstrong and AGF; sumptuous design by James Johnson and striking use of technologies. Combining so many elements requires care to achieve balance and while each element is accomplished, as a whole, it’s a cacophony of white noise.
The soundtrack from composer Craig Armstrong and German digital media artist AGF (aka Antye Greie) may work well in its own right. There are gentle lapping background sounds from Armstrong and heavy electronic overlay from AGF. Together, it’s too heavy an overlay and often takes centre stage too much.
Judith Williams puts in a fine solo performance as Orlando, mastering the multiple transformations with ease. The soundtrack repeats her words, whispering them and feeding them back to us, leaving them hanging on the air, alive with the power of imagination. Wonderful words like ‘Here I lie in the cold embrace of the grass with the scent of the bog myrtle and the meadow-sweet in my nostrils. I have found my mate.’ However, there are times when the soundtrack, particularly the electronic, eat up the words, and given that this play is so textually based and that the words are the real star of the show, this is a serious flaw.
Cryptic claims to be “a pioneer in using new technologies as an integral part of their live performances”. There are some striking technologies at play here. James Johnson has created a simple but effective set which works well both for the actor and for the use of technology: a double line of shimmering vertical drapes are a background to the action and work well for the projected imagery too. During the Great Frost ghostly images are projected on to the cloths, and as Orlando travels in Constantinople 3D images of buildings loom behind him. They’re suggestive rather than definitive and add to the imaginative impact.
As a play about the power of the imagination and of words this needs to be sparkling and playful. This is a play that ravishes the senses and that is densely and richly textured. There are many fine elements in this production; unfortunately it is less than the sum of its parts, and portentous rather than playful.