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.
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.