Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando: A Biography was published in 1928, when discussion of sexuality was made in hushed tones, and inseparable from notions of gender identity. If a person loved a woman, they had to take the form of the masculine, and the reverse was true. The centrepiece of Orlando‘s story is a man’s magical transformation into a woman, wistfully described but scarcely explained, though by simple deduction, one could perceive more than an indication of sexual fluidity, and a desire to explore what is now known as sexual orientation. It would be remiss, however, to reduce the work to be simply about sex, for its interest in fluidity extends to the whole of a person’s identity, or how one sees themselves, along with how society conceives of that individual.
Sarah Ruhl’s 2010 stage adaptation can be understood as a feminist piece. Orlando’s life as a man is depicted with an extroversion that is concerned with the character’s appetite and discovery of the world around him. But as a woman, she turns introspective and we are presented with constant interrogations about her place in relation to things as the fairer sex. In other words, maleness is seen as an unquestionable natural state, while the feminine requires persistent justification. In dramatic terms, Ruhl’s work is poetic, sublime theatre that uses all the capacities of language to excite, provoke and enchant, and to tell a fascinating story that is strangely engaging in spite of its contextual distance.
It is a humorous text, gentle in its approach, but always charming and amusing with its renderings. Director Sarah Goodes executes that subtle comedic tone with great sophistication, and although the production is seldom laugh-out-loud funny, her brilliant wit is deeply endearing. There is clever use of space, with a relatively small ensemble establishing an active and visually dynamic stage. Comprising two flights of mobile staircases and concentric revolving platforms, our eyes are kept busy and no time is wasted on scene changes, but the production is not strikingly lavish. It makes occasional reference to the well-known Sally Potter film of 1992, but that extravagant beauty, still fresh in many of our memories, is absent from this staging.
Our focus is placed squarely, and appropriately, on the title role’s narrative, but the show features a charismatic four-man chorus that helps with a lot of heavy lifting. Matthew Backer, John Gaden, Garth Holcombe and Anthony Taufa play a wide range of roles in all gender states, and provide commentary in song and narration that moves the plot along in spirited, gay fashion. Backer in particular, is impressive with his fervent embrace of the show’s vaudeville style of presentation, taking the opportunity to showcase delightful comic timing and a flair for exquisite camp.
In the role of Orlando is Jacqueline McKenzie, keeping us spellbound with a delivery that will be remembered for its intelligence, precision and unrelenting effervescence. It is noteworthy that the actor’s interpretation of Orlando’s personality does not alter significantly with the sensational gender transformation. Whether in male or female costume, McKenzie maintains a singular essence, reflecting a modern and enlightened attitude toward the construction of gendered identities. Her unfaltering energy gives life to two solid hours of stage time, every minute compelling and whimsical, keeping us engrossed in the development of Orlando’s extraordinary narrative with her captivating confidence.
The word “transgender” was recently announced as one of Collins’ dictionary’s “Words of the Year”. As Western societies begin to better understand the way we live out our gendered lives, we can recognise that a new dawn in civilisation is imminent, where people will no longer be persecuted for the way they express their gender, and individuals are free to adopt any form of gender identity they wish to inhabit. Hardly anyone bats an eyelid when Orlando emerges as a woman after living thirty years as the opposite sex. We may not share her aristocracy, wealth and power, but we can appreciate the nonchalance surrounding her transformation, and indeed realise the curious irrelevance of something that convention considers so crucial to how we understand life. Feminism is about achieving equality, and in equality, all that we think separates us, can be vanquished.