5 stars out of 5 Orlando review – Emma Corrin is glorious in a giddy, heartfelt show Garrick theatre, London
In Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s wild-goose chase through time, Corrin shines as the hero who falls asleep as a man and wakes as a woman
Emma Corrin’s Orlando is a flare of coltish charisma. Like its star, Neil Bartlett’s giddy adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel radiates gleeful intelligence, rampaging heart and tremendous fun. It couldn’t feel more timely, and it’s glorious.
Woolf wrote Orlando in 1928 as a love letter to Vita Sackville-West and a jeu d’esprit to dispel the shadows of To the Lighthouse. Over four centuries, Orlando sees despotic monarchy become the universal franchise, and somewhere in the 17th century, falls asleep as a man and wakes as a woman. A rompish wild-goose chase through time, place and gender, it takes tenacious hold of our imaginations.
Gleaming … Emma Corrin as Orlando. Photograph: Marc Brenner
We meet Corrin’s Orlando as a young, male Elizabethan aristocrat. There’s a brief prosthetic dangle as he clambers into what Upstart Crow would call his puffling pants. In verdant green velvet, single pearl earring shivering beside a platinum scrub of hair, he’s a gangling personality in process.
The aged, querulous Elizabeth I (Lucy Briers) totters on in a blaze of crimson light, speaking in Shakespearean half-quotations (Hamlet’s ghost meets Cleopatra). Ten years on, we’re in wintry Jacobean London, on the frozen Thames. Will Sasha, niece of the Russian ambassador (AKA “Uncle Vanya”), warm Orlando’s affections? She does, but abandons him with the thaw, and Orlando howls with first heartbreak.
Mrs Grimsditch, Orlando’s cajoling housekeeper – a delicious Deborah Findlay – remains steadfast, unfazed even by Queen Elizabeth (“If that woman’s changed her linen since the Armada, my name’s Sir Walter Raleigh”). Bartlett distils what he needs from the novel and his genius inspiration is a chorus of Virginia Woolfs. Timorous scribblers in worsted cardigans and sensible specs, they not only create Orlando’s adventures, but live vicariously through them.
The wild and restless sea beckons Orlando, every wave an adventure. On we sail, through Nell Gwyn’s London (“work those oranges, girlfriend”) and then to Turkey, where the untraumatic transformation from boy to girl takes place. Orlando may not fundamentally change, but the prism though which she is seen certainly does. Goodbye property rights, hello misogyny.
No wonder Orlando discards her constraining frock to enjoy the freedom of the town and a companionable night with a sex worker (“as the lady novelist said to the incidental working-class character,” quips splendid Millicent Wong). Lying in wait is the bonneted horror of Victoriana, era of Woolf’s own upbringing, where prune-faced Virginias rattle disapproving teacups.
In Michael Grandage’s buoyant production, each leap through history summons another clothes rail – new era, new trousers. Peter McKintosh’s lavishly spare designs are breathlessly lit by Howard Hudson and theatricality suffuses Bartlett’s writing – that giddy arena where style snogs sincerity. His heartfelt and insinuating collage offers winking allusions to everything from Jacobean tragedy to Liza Minnelli via Some Like It Hot (“nobody’s perfect!”).
Corrin addresses us with the assurance of privilege and a true friend’s candour. Whatever the costume, they retain a contemporary slouch and in pensive moments, the actor gleams ivory in the moonlight, a puzzle to themselves.
At a moment of toxic arguments around trans identity, this show arrives like a liberation. No intrusive discussion of lady parts or bathroom arrangements: how refreshing. The Virginias urge Orlando to hang on for untrammelled freedom – “if you can just live another century” – though Woolf herself won’t survive past 1941. Orlando may swap sex and skim through centuries, but they’re always Orlando, thrumming through Corrin’s undimmable presence.
4 stars out of 5 Emma Corrin is riveting as Virginia Woolf’s sex-switching Orlando
The breakout star of The Crown makes a dazzling West End return in Neil Bartlett’s new take on Woolf’s pioneering work
‘Ravishing’: Emma Corrin stars in Orlando at the Garrick Theatre CREDIT: Marc Brenner
It should be said straightaway that this new adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, which brings Emma Corrin back to the West End after their assured debut in Anna X last summer, enables people to see one of the stars of The Crown (young Diana, obvs) for the princessly sum of £10. The run has 10,000 tickets at that price: a fitting Yuletide gift.
Inevitably, the best stalls seats are on sale for considerably more (£100 even) than that. But Corrin is worth raiding the piggy bank for. So perfect as Diana, the 26-year-old, who identifies as non-binary, is pretty ideal casting for the hero-heroine of Woolf’s 1928 fictive biography.
“No human being… has ever looked more ravishing,” the book’s narrator sighs, after the eponymous young Elizabethan-age man wakes as the ‘opposite’ sex following a slumber while serving as ambassador for Charles II, thence enduring Peter Pan-ishly, and matter-of-factly, unblemished right up until the present day.
There’s a shock of the nude at the start of Michael Grandage’s 90-minute production. Slipping between a surreal ‘chorus’ identically kitted out in cardies, blouses and skirts to denote a concerned, borderline neurotic pack of chattering Virginia Woolfs, Corrin’s Orlando teases a white smock up to reveal a male member. Thereafter, however, the piece, adapted by queer theatre pioneer Neil Bartlett, throws a modest veil over explicit biological distinctions: the sex-switch indicated by an arched, bared back, Corrin then rising, draped in a sheet, before coolly ambling off for a bath.
The references from then on are to Orlando as a woman, different anatomy inferred, but a hint of ambiguity remains. That’s in keeping with the book’s disdain for spelling things out in too much detail (“Let other pens treat of sex and sexuality”) and allows ingress for today’s ideas (which Woolf surely anticipated) of an individual placing their perceived gender identity above outlying convention or physiques.
Even so, it’s a disappointment how hands-off Bartlett’s interpretation is. He luxuriates in a decorous and familiar – if caperingly enjoyable – theatricality, Orlando trying on attitudes and costumes as centuries fly by and fashions shift, a Restoration lady about town one minute, a roving dandy the next, a magnet for the equivalently ambivalent. Grandage arranges the brisk pageant of vignettes with painterly finesse.
But while there’s much ado by the noting and scribbling Virginias – plus a bustling Deborah Findlay as cockney housekeeper Mrs Grimsditch – about how difficult issues are being explored, it all feels coyly skin-deep. The constraints of ‘polite’ Victorian society are genteelly sketched, the wonder, pain and injustices of womanhood and difference left barely verbalised. And is Bartlett afraid of Woolf’s wittily florid prose? The tingle factor of the “great frost fair” of 1607 aside, her elegant voice feels neutered, with some toe-curling Shakespearean pastiche added too.
What anchors attention is the coruscating Corrin. Whether it’s a darting, impish look, a nymph-like movement, a roguish smile that’s dazzling as a lighthouse, some put-on manly insouciance or a frisson of confused desire, you’re ever in the presence of pure star quality.
5 stars out of 5 Orlando review “Theatre to make the heart leap”
Giddily gorgeous staging captures the transgressive spirit of Woolf’s novel
What rare glory is this, diamond-bright and quicksilver? Breezily adapted by Neil Bartlett from Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel, directed by Michael Grandage and designed by Peter McKintosh, this vivid, glittering drama achieves not just the improbable, but the almost impossible: it captures the brilliance of Woolf’s mind, the daring of her transgressive vision and the lush gorgeousness of her prose, and refracts it on the stage in an exquisite rainbow of prismatic colour.
Woolf’s book is partly a love letter to Vita Sackville-West, whom she reimagines cutting a swathe through 400 years of history in giddy pursuit of passion and significance, first as a beautiful boy, then as a woman. Emma Corrin’s Orlando arrives as a teenager in a nightshirt and stockings, a pearl swinging from one ear, all luminous, rumpled innocence, amid a throng of identically bunned and bespectacled Virginias embodied by the cast. He yawns and stretches, his hem nonchalantly rising to reveal a glimpse of his penis – and demands: “Who am I?”
On the quest for an answer to this existential question, we, and Orlando, are cheerfully chivvied along by Deborah Findlay as Mrs Grimsditch, a housekeeper who serves as a kind of narrative midwife. She fastens Corrin’s Orlando into doublet and ruff, or hooped skirts and stays; she signposts dates and locations as we journey from the Elizabethan court to the present. Along the way, Orlando revels in his talent and appetites, suffers devastating heartbreak – and, of course, he becomes a she, falling asleep as a man in 17th-century Constantinople and waking as a woman, reborn to rediscover the world from a fresh (and not always agreeable) perspective.
Grandage’s production oozes sensory pleasure. Lucy Briers’ arid, ageing Elizabeth I, a crumbling edifice of regal magnificence, appears to a blast of trumpets and grandiose rock music. In the great frost of 1607, the captivating, elusive Russian princess Sasha (Millicent Wong) glides on skates around a besotted Corrin on the frozen Thames, and feasts among fur-hatted Cossacks at a table laden with fruit and pheasants. Jacobean ladies, competing to win Orlando as a husband, twerk in gleaming silk gowns. There are velvet-swagged curtains and curled wigs in the Restoration; hatchet-faced, bonneted Victorians sip from teacups that they produce from capacious handbags.
There’s an irreverent, punk attitude here that recalls Derek Jarman’s iconic film Jubilee. Shakespeare jostles with references to the Brontës, Chekhov, Lewis Carroll, even the musical Cabaret, in a play that is at once a delectable queer fantasia and a freewheeling intellectual joyride through the intertwined complexities of life, literature, identity and the creative process. It screeches to a startling temporary halt with an austere reminder of Woolf’s suicide, her many selves mournfully reunited. But as Corrin’s eldritch, luminously charismatic Orlando steps into the future, in pursuit of the next dream, the next wild goose to chase, this is theatre to make the heart leap: a blazing beacon to progress, to possibility, to freedom and the power of imagination.
Emma Corrin is a very special actor, with an ability to hold a space and command attention simply by their presence. After a West End stage debut in Anna X last year, they are returning to the London stage in an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando – a part that might have been written for them, full of joy and hope and sense of possibility for the future.
Woolf’s breathtaking jeu d’esprit of a book is a biography of Orlando, born a man in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, who serves as an ambassador to the Turkish court under Charles II and then one day wakes up as a woman, one who lives to become a female writer in 1920s England. Written under the influence of Woolf’s love affair with Vita Sackville-West, it’s both radical and fun.
It is also, essentially, impossible to adapt for the stage since so much of its pleasure springs from its tone, from Orlando’s self-knowledge, Woolf’s wit and the prose darting between the two. Neil Barlett’s version, for director Michael Grandage’s MGC, wisely decides to impose a different structure and some extra jokes, filling the stage with versions of Virginia, who take all the parts.
He also gives Orlando an all-knowing sidekick in the form of Deborah Findlay’s Mrs Grimsditch, grumbling gruffly – and with immaculate comic timing – about having to provide all the costume changes and the commentary on the changing centuries as they rush by. In this way, he preserves all of Orlando’s astonished understanding of the limitations of a woman’s life – unable to inherit their own estate, for example.
In Victorian times, when Woolf was of course born, the world shrinks to a single bed. “I don’t seem to be able to feel my brain,” says Orlando, unhappily. “I shouldn’t worry about that dear,” responds Mrs G. “Not really the done thing just now for a woman.”
It’s all very meta and clever. (“I wish to change,” says Orlando. “Would this be a metaphorical transformation,” shoots back Mrs G.) Bartlett fills out the different eras in the script by quotations from sources as varied as Shakespeare and Some Like It Hot. The passage of the centuries is also beautifully marked by Peter McKintosh’s designs: lush velvet curtains swooping in to announce the 18th century, William Morris designed wallpaper for the 19th.
Grandage’s direction is similarly fluent. He is brilliant at marshalling the beige-cardiganed Virginias around the stage, allowing the individual qualities of each to shine and letting the action flow with easy emphasis. Some scenes – when Orlando falls in love with a skating Russian princess in the great frost of 1607 – are magically evoked, with Howard Hudson’s lighting and Alex Baranowski’s music adding to the mood.
But for all the care lavished upon it, there’s something elusive about this Orlando. It’s as if Bartlett has kept the plot but lost the essence of the story. You don’t want a strict transformation of book to stage, but I did hope for something more consistently illuminating. As it is, the sense of the sublime only arrives at the end, when Orlando suddenly asserts their right to be anything they dream and love.
Corrin, who is non-binary, seizes the moment, the openness of their face and the simple directness of the way they listen and respond creating a conclusion of uplifting emotional power, totally in the spirit of Woolf. Throughout, this is a fantastic performance, full of gentle detail – shoulders wriggling in distaste, eyes wide in discovery – and Corrin provides the compelling heart of a problematic play.
4 stars out of 5
Orlando review: Emma Corrin is magnificent as Woolf’s punk rock protagonist Michael Grandage’s production has an inventiveness and creativity that’s true to the spirit of Virginia Woolf’s novel
This is Virginia Woolf turned up to a nine. No, seriously: Michael Grandage’s adaptation of her most punk rock novel begins with nine bespectacled, cardiganed Woolfs roaming the stage, reading, writing, thinking. All but two of the cast – including its only man, Richard Cant – play the novelist at various moments throughout the play: a guiding light, but also a nod to the freewheeling fluidity that characterises this vivid celebration of a show.
At its heart is a highly magnetic performance from Emma Corrin, playing the handsome young nobleman who time-travels through centuries and, at the age of 30, wakes up as a woman. It’s hard to remember a bolder entrance than this: Orlando walks on stage in a silky shirt, stretches, and happens to reveal the fact he’s not wearing any pants. He then cheekily breaks the fourth wall, asking, “Shall I compare me to a summer’s day?” Corrin, after appearing in a couple of disappointing films, delivers a joyful and groundbreaking Orlando that feels like a calling card for the stardom that The Crown first promised. They’re magnificent. Whether bowing to Elizabeth I or falling in love on a frozen pond, they’re just as capable of humour as they are pathos, with Orlando by turns intense, charismatic and swoonworthy.
Where the novel creates an overwhelming world of colour and history, Peter McKintosh’s set is bare, the action summoned instead by language – “Try words,” as the chorus of Woolfs advise Orlando. This can sometimes make the show feels static, without the novel’s heady perpetual forward motion – but here the slipperiness of the changing centuries and Orlando’s journey through gender becomes much more about the mutable power of identity. “Who am I?” is the question that Orlando explores from the first scene to the last.
The cast joyride through different roles, with the exception of Corrin and Deborah Findlay, who plays a proper “cor, blimey” housekeeper Mrs Grimsditch. The character, while sometimes distractingly hammy, accompanies Orlando through the years with a no-nonsense matriarchal spirit and a rail of fantastical costumes, and often gets the funniest lines (the 19th century has “in-door sanitation, which is lovely! And Tories, which is…”).
Neil Bartlett’s bouncy script playfully nods to our changing contemporary attitudes – “ladies and gentlemen. Oh, sorry, everyone,” is how Mrs Grimsditch addresses the audience. We see Orlando meeting suitors as a man, and later as a woman; when female, they bewilder a captain by appearing in their underwear. Here, seen from both sides, gender – or our fixed ideas about it – often looks ludicrous, but we’re also reminded how unkind history has been to women in particular, with many references made to their presumed inferiority.
Even with its pared-back staging, Grandage’s show often looks incredibly beautiful. I wanted to take a picture of the scene of the 1607 great freeze, in which Corrin stands centre stage, surrounded by twinkling stars and dry ice; it’s magical. And all hail the costume designer – also McKintosh – for some seriously stunning creations, including a very fancy red dress that Orlando discards after mere minutes. True to Woolf’s spirit, the show’s strongest charm really is its inventiveness and creativity, and its final scene, though a little polemical, is a triumph, finding a conduit to genuine emotion. Who is Orlando? Only Corrin’s greatest role since Diana.