Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Katrina Darychuk is not afraid of Virginia Woolf. Her modern, considered and utterly arresting production of Woolf’s Orlando, adapted by Sarah Ruhl, is a testament to her appreciation for Orlando’s “boldness, wit, and fearless approach towards death, love, and writing.” Currently receiving its Canadian premiere at Soulpepper, the show tells the story of Orlando, played by a gripping Sarah Afful, who undergoes numerous transformations and revelations within an extended lifetime spanning the 16th through the 20th centuries. “I was drawn to Orlando because of its complexity: it’s not just a story; it’s an imagined biography,” Ms Darychuk affirms.
Indeed, the story has fascinated since its publication in 1928. Woolf’s experimental style and provocative themes are encoded in witty, incandescent prose. In fact, “much of Woolf’s writing is a challenge to read–it’s demanding,” Ms Darychuk avers. By contrast, “the play offers the story more like a poem, allowing us more space to hear and commune with the material.” Orlando is a delightful, intrepid tour-de-force that prizes descriptive narration over dialogue. Ruhl, who began her career a poet, has ceded to Woolf’s prose in her adaptation, which is compact and brisk. Ms Darychuk’s assessment? In “true Woolf fashion”, the play is not a “traditional narrative” – and a large part of its beauty is its “freedom from that construct.”
Over centuries, Orlando navigates social striations, societal restrictions, inheritance rights and the vagaries of fashion – all artfully interwoven with commentary implied and explicit on the fluidity of time, gender and identity. Is time an external measure of minutes and days, symbolized in Orlando’s family home of 365 rooms and 52 staircases? Or is it a response to one’s personal experiences? Orlando experiences time as eternal moments of subjective introspection and remembrance. His internal clock intersects objective time by way of events in history and the personal milestones Orlando experiences (such as marriage, the birth of a son and the publication of Orlando’s poem, “The Oak Tree”). Hitherto a man, Orlando wakes one morning in 17th century Constantinople as a woman, though “in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been…. The change of sex…did nothing whatever to change their identity.” Being born into another “self” overnight does not feel unnatural to Orlando, for Orlando has already inhabited numerous “selves” as changing circumstance and companions have around required.
Orlando’s memory encounters no obstacle in “running back through all the events of her past lives”, and Lorenzo Savioni’s stark set furthers this idea of time and identity as a flow. The stage is a glistening white rectangular platform with one translucent white wall suspended from the ceiling at one end. It sits in the round. The audience, on the other three sides ,are spectators and pseudo-confidants to Orlando’s interior life. Neither the wall nor the door embedded in it touches the platform. The 3-person Chorus (John Jarvis, Craig Lauzon and Alex McCooeye) and Orlando verbally conjure and enact individuals, events and settings as the plot demands. The action stays within the abstract: the stage is a floating cupboard, evoking a mental storehouse from which events emerge and retreat, like threads of memory. Props appear and disappear. Costumes change as time passes. And characters enter and exit from all sides, enacting the seamless fluidity of Orlando’s consciousness and simulating the episodic confluence of memories: life is happening and being remembered as happening, as time passes.
Generically, time is very much of the essence in Orlando. It is a parodic ‘biography,’ a form that preserves events by organizing them according to a timeline. Woolf wrote it as a roman-à-clef to honour and immortalize the novelist-poet Vita Sackville-West, the friend and one-time lover to whom she dedicated the novel. So what should we make of love as it is depicted in Orlando: Orlando’s timeless quest for it, the universal need for it, and that the story itself was born of it? Ms Darychuk notes that Woolf and Sackville-West had a “complicated and creative relationship,” and what she loves most about the love theme in the piece is that it is “far from romantic. Orlando being written for Vita was a tribute, but also a commentary on her family, her life, and her daily affairs.” For Ms Darychuk, the love represented in the play is not an ideal of love, but rather the “many layers and kinds of attachment and affection that can be mistaken for love. When Orlando does find someone that mirrors her, it is a discovery of herself as much as a discovery of him.”
Of course, the question of gender is another central theme of Orlando, one which has become even more pertinent and divisive since Woolf wrote her novel. Ms Darychuk asserts that while the story “explores gender and how we play within binaries, it also addresses our binary approach towards time and towards art”. She reasons that producing the play today makes sense because “we are constantly expanding and exploring our language around gender identity.” She points out with pride that the piece is written, adapted, and directed by women, with a “powerhouse female actor” in the title role. And the play certainly speaks to ongoing questions about gender roles and expectations, while inviting questions about the relevance of gender identity. What is feminine? What is masculine? What exists in between? Ms Darychuk believes that gender is a construction, one whose “full parameters we cannot see at one moment. As the play moves through time, it’s evident that gender constructs become so deeply imbedded in us, in our conditioning, that often we are not aware we are applying ourselves to them.” Working on Orlando has prompted a desire to create more “non-binary approaches in our work as theatre artists”. She believes it is vital to create spaces where gender variance and fluidity are welcome, but she knows this will not be an overnight adjustment: “Our conditioning is so strong to want to see a man or woman.”
Fluidity of gender and elasticity of identity find subtle expression in the many ways that the play’s roles (and costumes) are assumed. The Chorus narrates much of the action, while literally flowing through characters of different ages and sexes. Jarvis plays Queen Elizabeth I, Lauzon plays Sir Marmaduke, and McCooeye plays Archduchess Harriet, among others. Only Afful and Maev Beaty, who plays Sasha, the great love of Orlando’s youth, play a single character. Ms Darychuk’s casting accords with Ruhl’s preferred casting of two women in the roles of Orlando and Sasha: “It made more and more sense to me as we rehearsed with Sarah and Maev, having women at the forefront of the piece illuminated much of the commentary made by Woolf.” Ms Darychuk had long admired Afful’s work, beginning in their native Vancouver, and “What became clear about casting Sarah was that she was asking the very questions Orlando is asking in her own life.” Moreover, the fact that the role has never been played by a woman of colour felt important, so that Orlando’s journey would “be led by someone who felt both of the material for its questioning, and completely separate from the material for its Eurocentric context. Sarah brings a level of discovery and joy to the many worlds Orlando travels through.”
Ninety years on, Orlando still prompts large questions that reverberate, and delivers meaty themes with quirky humour and a sense of wonder. On the night I attended, the woman to my right admitted to her partner at intermission, “it’s interesting, but I don’t know if it’s really my cup of tea.” An hour later at the curtain call, she leapt to her feet in a standing ovation. For me, that off-balance engagement proves the power of Ms Darychuk’s mesmerizing, intensely imaginative yet relatable treatment of the material. I believe admirers of Woolf (and even those who remain a little afraid of her) will be similarly moved by Ms Darychuk’s evocative and elegant production, running until July 29.
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What: Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, adapted by Sarah Ruhl; Featuring Sarah Afful, Maev Beaty, John Jarvis, Craig Lauzon and Alex McCooeye; Directed by Katrina Darychuk
Who: Audiences 14 years and up
When: On stage until July 29, 2018; running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes (including one 20-minute intermission)
Where: Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, ON M5A 3C4
Info and Tickets: Soulpepper.ca or 416.866.8666
© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya