The first thing that popped into my head when I saw that Curtin University was performing Orlando was the 2003 film starring Tilda Swinton. Sadly, I can’t claim that playwright Sarah Ruhl or even author Virginia Woolf sprang to mind, but was certainly intrigued once I saw these two cited in the byline (it’s Ruhl’s adaptation of the Woolf novel). I wanted to see Curtin’s production not only because it would give me the chance to increase my general knowledge in two key areas (theatre and literature), but it would also be the first Curtin University show I would attend.
The show begins with a chorus of performers dressed in white, milling about in a whitewashed space with a few whitewashed chairs and boxes. It’s all very ethereal and timeless, which, it turns out, is exactly what the play calls for. Orlando is a strange story that crosses centuries and gender lines, and the language is poetic and fluid. It touches on so many ideas about sex, the sexes, human behaviour, love, language, poetry, social constructs — I mean, the list goes on and on. But it never goes preachy because of how all of that is framed and embodied within the character of Orlando, here played by the absolutely lovely Beth Tremlett.
This is a good piece for university level theatre, because of its timelessness (there aren’t really any characters that MUST be played by more aged actors) and its topical nature (gender and sexual fluidity is still a major issue for our time, and certainly for university students who may still only be learning how to express or explore that fluidity). There are plenty of challenges within the script though, which may call for slightly more experienced performers, but I think director Leah Mercer has guided her cast well.
For example, Orlando’s character narrates her own actions, and has to be of two minds, both within the character’s present mind and also within the narrator’s mind. So, as she moves to kiss a scene partner, she physically performs the action and exchanges dialogue with the other actor, but then she might also describe it in third person by saying something like, “Orlando kissed Sasha and blushed.” Tricky. But Tremlett is a very strong and sensitive performer, and she’s spot on with this trick so that you hardly even notice she’s narrating herself as she goes.
Tremlett goes from young boy to man to woman over the course of the play, and although you’d never ever mistake her physically for a young man in a million years, she is convincing in her emotional commitment to the part. She quite reminded me of Greta Garbo in Queen Christina, in which Garbo plays Queen Christina of Sweden and goes around in men’s attire; the film shares many thematic elements with Orlando too.
There are some fine performers in the supporting cast. Bubble Maynard (now there’s a name that’ll make her famous) does some great character work as a disapproving Queen Elizabeth with a healthy sexual appetite; she finds just the right comedic tone with her condescending looks and impatient gestures, and her first entrance on scene is priceless. Declan Brown services the piece well with nice versatility in his character work also. Daniel Suelto provides a quirky and offbeat presence in the chorus and in his Duchess character’s cringeworthy scenes with Orlando. Just to clarify, the scenes are cringeworthy on purpose, not because they’re badly done.
The chorus is fleshed out with an additional 5 singing chorus members, who help with scene transitions and setting the mood and tone of the piece.
Mercer arranges and groups the ensemble well in the space, and has given the staging a lot of physical movement to keep it fluid. There is also a really wonderful set piece in the form of a custom-made, oversized, illuminated pop-up book, which helps to define the location of many of the scenes. And in one scene the chorus pulls out a half-dozen miniature paper houses that are lit from inside while the stage lights are flicked off and on. These little handmade touches really give the show a unique, playful quality.
The second half after the interval is quite touching and beautiful; the poetry of the language really soars, and the ensemble seem quite comfortable using it. Tremlett delivers the line “I am nature’s bride” with absolute sincerity; anything less genuine from her could have been cringeworthy (and not on purpose), but her emotional pitch is just right throughout that monologue and indeed the rest of performance, so that the final quietly beautiful moments brought a tear to my eye.
That’s pretty rare for me these days as a theatre critic.
Orlando runs every night this week at 7pm until Saturday at Hayman Theatre Upstairs.
Tickets are $15 standard or $12 concession.
Book by emailing L.Brennan@curtin.edu.au or calling 9266 2383.
Check out the Facebook event page here.