Monday, April 22

Orlando – Jermyn Street Theatre

One can’t help but wonder what Virginia Woolf would make of the Kardashians, porn ogling MPs, and rising transphobia. She’d surely be a lively wag on Twitter, but likely view TikTok as ghastly and common. 

Her most popular work, Orlando, is the poetic Magna Carta of subversive queerness, wry feminism and trans magic. On Brexit island in 2022, Empire is celebrated with dim blindness, but in 1928, Woolf used her most joyful literary turn to skewer British imperialism with withering disdain. 

Due to its fantastical spirit, people often overlook the book’s political satire. Orlando is a transgressive free spirit, but the English patriarchy proves a persistent prison, regardless of epoch, and despite wealth, beauty and mystical eternal youth. 

After Orlando’s male-to-female transformation Woolf anticipated the future by speaking of Orlando with ‘they’ pronouns: “The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity. Their faces remained, as their portraits prove, practically the same.” She was ahead of the curve. Merriam-Webster dates the first use of non-binary pronouns to the 1950s.

Would Woolf wonder if we’re going backwards? She certainly viewed time as bendy concept that could speed ahead while society fossilised. This quirky, stage adaption of Orlando by Sarah Ruhl romps through half a millennium with a giddy delight that’s brashly camp, knowingly shonky and tons of fun.

Taylor McClaine plays Orlando with androgynous brio and undoubtedly has a touch of the Tilda. Impressively, this is their first professional theatre role. McClaine rocks that break, but there’s something sadly unlikely and refreshing about casting an unknown in a leading role. It shouldn’t be a shock in theatre. It should be about raw talent, but the trend for famous faces to sell out those spaces shows no sign of abating.

At first, the madcap irreverence of this production felt like an am dram gig gone wild, but within minutes, the ensemble cast charmed with sharp comic timing and a dazzling ability to play a wide range of large characters. Tigger Blaize is outrageously hilarious as Archduchess Harriet Griselda, then grimly butch and uptight when the drag gets dropped and they become Archduke Harry. 

The second half is less frenetic and consequently a tad less entertaining. Woolf had a particular loathing for the Victorians, with their uptight rules and looming shadows of shame. The monogamy and melancholy of Orlando in the 19th century make one yearn for her to fling off the bonnet and return to the debauchery of the Ottoman Empire. 

Ruhl’s Orlando takes Woolf’s frivolity and distils it for the stage. This production understands the assignment and serves up much needed happy escapism.

Orlando continues until 28May, full details and tickets can be found at https://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk/show/orlando/

Reviewer: Stewart Who?

Reviewed: 3rd May 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★ 

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