Orlando: Fluidity in Gender, Desire, and Time

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, adapted by Sarah Ruhl


 

It is always a delight to see an ensemble of young performers grappling with a compelling dramatic text. The cast and production team at the UW School of Drama embraced the challenge of bringing Sarah Ruhl’s rich imagery and thematically slippery adaptation of Virginia’s Woolf’s Orlando to life with gusto. The plot follows the protagonist Orlando, an Elizabethan nobleman who is magically transformed into an immortal woman, from the Elizabethan Age to the present moment. During Orlando’s biblically long life the production explores the nature of romance and desire, the constraints and privileges of gender across historical time periods, and the feeling that understanding the greatest mysteries of life and love are always just out of reach. (Even for one who has lived many lifetimes.) The play’s script maintains the best poetic and literary qualities of Woolf’s original text but explodes into a lively, optimistic, and quite enjoyable staging in the UW production.  

The note from the playwright, as well as the director’s note, focus heavily on the influence of the Sackville-West and Woolf romance as the template for what would eventually become Woolf’s Orlando. Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West met at a dinner party held by art critic Clive Bell in December of 1922. The two shared an immediate connection that blossomed into a romantic and sexual relationship that lasted for the greater part of a decade. Woolf herself describes the meeting writing, “She is a pronounced Sapphist, and may have an eye on me, old though I am. Nature might have sharpened her faculties. Snob as I am, I trace her passions 500 years back, and they become romantic to me, like old yellow wine.”

Importantly, both Woolf and Sackville-West were members of the Bloomsbury Group. The Bloomsbury Group (or, sometimes, Bloomsbury Set) was a loosely defined collective of artists, writers, and creatives who began as friends and lovers but remained connected by feminist and pacifist politics, a rejection of Victorian sexual mores, and the production of what would become some of the most iconic works of interwar Britain’s art and literature. The group included Woolf’s husband, essayist Leonard Woolf, the prolific fiction writer E.M. Forster, Woolf’s sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, and several other journalists, poets, economists and visual artists.

The Sackville-West romance certainly serves as a guiding force for the plot of the play as well as for the character of Orlando. (Like her counterpart in the play, Sackville-West was a poet, cross dresser, aristocrat and, in many respects, an exhibitionist.) The problem with clinging too tightly to the Woolf / Sackville-West romance is that Ruhl’s play is about so much more than the relationship between the two women. Both Woolf’s original text and Ruhl’s adaptation are more than commentaries on gender-bending, queer desire, or the fluid nature of sexuality. Woolf’s conceptualization of these ideas in Orlando is entrenched in a distinctly early 20th-century British historical and social context. Both Ruhl’s text and the UW production engage these expressions of gender/sexual fluidity, situated within greater contours of a white, imperial and British framework, each adding new thematic nuance as they interpret Woolf’s perspective on gender and queer desire.      

The Bloomsbury link is an important undercurrent that seeps its way into Ruhl’s adaptation. The interests of these artists and writers was rarely limited to a myopic area of focus. Rather, the works generated by members of the group created a buzz around their very fluidity of form, content and theme. For example, Woolf’s Orlando itself is hard to define as a piece of literature. It’s not quite a novel, nor is it a poem. It is a sort of free-form biography, an intimate love letter, and yet it’s equally a piece of fantasy. Ruhl’s adaptation for the stage follows this same fluidity of form and theme. It is a text as interested in critiquing social norms through an explicit focus on gendered fashion trends across history as it is about the eternal struggle for an everyman-poet to produce creative work. It’s a weird play. There’s no way around it. As soon as one feels settled watching the young Lothario, Orlando, jumping from woman to woman, Ruhl pulls the proverbial rug out from under you by sending him to Constantinople only to magically transform Orlando into a woman.

The main problem throughout this production was one of grounding the storytelling to a particular time-period, material space, and culture of values. (Perhaps this is the biggest challenge the text of the play presents: how do you effectively signify the differences between ‘King James’s England’ and ‘Victorian England’ and then move into the troublingly vast ‘20th century’ in a way that makes sense to the audience on a limited technical budget?) This production relied heavily on costume changes, dances from each period, and sound design to make the transitions clear. The success of these transitions between time-period was uneven. In particular, the move from 19th to 20th century lacked punch and precision as four ensemble members hastily danced in unrecognizably ambiguous modern street clothes to Cole Porter’s “Let’s Misbehave”. This song is an anthem of the 1920s, but seemed like an afterthought because of the rushed staging and lack of costuming. Though, it is worth noting, that overall the costumes were thoughtfully rendered. (Orlando’s red Victorian-era dress and Marmaduke’s equestrian ensemble were standouts.) Returning to the first act, the ensemble moved smoothly from Elizabethan to Jacobean London, and back and forth between Orlando’s ancestral home and the court. Finally, the act ends in Orlando’s flight to Constantinople – the only location outside of England.

The staging of ‘Constantinople’ was interested in creating a space of polyamorous experimentation though use of an “amorous tableau”, which is called for in Ruhl’s text. However, the costumes, dancing, and music hinged on a surface-level rendering of all things that could be passably ‘Turkish’: woven rugs, fezes, tambourines, etc. This particular ‘Constantinople’ was problematically evocative of early modern British stereotypes of 17th century Constantinople: a destination full of taboo vices where British men would travel to experiment sexually, often with young Muslim boys. Many examples of European travel writing from this period helped develop various discourses describing Islam and Muslims as “the other”, sexually deviant, and drawn to excess. An example of this type of writing, taken from an anthology on Same-Sex Desire in early Modern England, 1550-1735:

The wicked example of the men, who slighting the natural use of womankind are mutually inflamed with a detestable love for one another, unfortunately inclines the women to imitate them. … These insatiable salaciousness[es] amongst the women are the effects and consequences of the same inclinations in the men; and the Turks are so much the more execrable and abominable as to this particular [vice] that they are permitted a plurality of wives.

Travel writings like this helped spread various prejudices and stereotypes that were reinforced by some of the signifiers used in this production’s rendering of Constantinople as an exoticized, eroticized space of “the other”.

Constantinople criticism aside, there is always something that strikes me as wonderfully experimental and unapologetic in watching a well-executed student performance. There is an inherent optimism and vivaciousness to this cast’s work that I think can only come from the ensemble work of budding artists testing the limits of their craft. Perhaps it is partially the inevitable nostalgia that floods my memory as I flash back to my own training that makes me a lover of theater department performances. Or maybe it’s something akin to why so many people prefer to watch college football when they could simply watch the NFL. You just can’t beat the passion, the dedication, and the sense that each performance might reveal a new talent ready to burst onto the scene.

In this production that new talent is most certainly Annie Willis’s Orlando. She captures the arc of a character who lives hundreds of years, moves fluidly between genders and lovers, all the time exploring the very nature of the self-identity. Willis’s nuance and care to details of physicality as well as increasing maturity in each ‘new life’ of Orlando anchors the production in historical time as well as thematically. Playing Orlando is a tall order and Willis delivers.       

The idea of staging fluidity, both of gender and sexual desire, fascinated audiences long before the early modern period that begins this play. It’s one of those enduring themes that have always been and will always be a part of live performance. At the end of the play Orlando is still ultimately in flux when we arrive at “the present moment”. Orlando monologues: “I can begin to live again. / The little boat is climbing through the white arch / of a thousand deaths. / I am about to understand …” Orlando ultimately leaves us with a question: will they ever grasp the nature of fluidity in forming self-identity? Is fully understanding the human capacity to change, reinvent, or perform alternative selves even possible? This is the same question the audience leaves the theater considering. Perhaps the main takeaway from Ruhl’s text is that this fluidity of gender and desire should be celebrated and, though an ancient theme, that it still deserves its place on stages at the present moment. The UW production of Orlando ultimately honored Ruhl’s optimism in their buoyant staging of the play.


 

  • Directed by L. Zane Jones
  • University of Washington – School of Drama
  • Dates: April 25 – May 7
  • Venue: Glenn Hughes Penthouse Theatre
  • Review Lead: Steph Hankinson / Review Team: Emily George and Lydia Heberling
  • Guest review team member: Anthony Reynolds