“Their morals were not ours”
Time for a confession – though I know I should have, I’ve not partaken of either Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel or Sally Potter’s 1992 Tilda Swinton-starring film adaptation of Orlando. So my trip to see the stage version by Sarah Ruhl at the Royal Exchange was actually my first experience of the story of a time-travelling, gender-swapping, history-defying nobleman, which is given highly theatrical life by Max Webster’s production which features Suranne Jones in the leading role.
It is strikingly done – Webster uses Liz Ranken’s movement and Vicki Amedume’s aerial knowledge to create a highly physical world which plays up the comedy of the story. From a sexually voracious Elizabeth I who is most taken with her pageboy to a gorgeous evocation of the arrival of electricity, the silly and the sublime co-exist, often in the form of the chorus of three men who narrate the action and populate the many small scenes.
Richard Hope, Thomas Arnold and Tunji Kasim show great versatility as this trio (Hope’s Queen Bess is a hoot and Kasim’s Shelmerdine is powerful), but it is Molly Gromadzki who finds real emotion as the Russian princess Sasha who literally sweeps the production off its feet with its romance. One suspects there could have been a more sensual, even sexual edge to the whole affair given the tangled gender relations but it is only a small complaint.
Jones delivers a mercurial performance as Orlando, shifting with each hop skip and jump in time and circumstance, uniquely experiencing love and loss from both sides of the gender divide. She responds beautifully to the physicality demanded of her (her core strength might rival Rosalie Craig’s) and executes a well-judged degree of restraint in the fluidity of the play’s arguments. A most intriguing piece of theatre and a resounding success for Suranne Jones.