Deb Meyer reviews the STC production of “Orlando”

November 20, 2015 by Deb Meyer
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Virginia Woolf’s epic, mythological tale of gender transformation through the ages is given a playful treatment by Chicago born playwright Sarah Ruhl, in this Australian premier.

In the current Sydney Theatre Company production, the essence of Woolf’s poetry carries us along, through narrating the bold and fantastical tale of the Lord Orlando, a shy and lonely nobleman who transforms into a woman, after a long sleep, with curious consequences.


John Gaden and Jacqueline Mckenzie, Photo by James Green

Spanning over 300 years, from Elizabethan England, to Constantinople and to 1920’s London, Orlando remains 36 (though hundreds of years old), as he/she travels through time and space, tormented in his/her search for love and happiness and sense of self.

Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation explores societal mores through the ages with an emphasis on the rigid expectations of gender roles, subverting stereotypes with all but one of the six characters switching genders and all displaying qualities at odds with societal gender expectations. The inherent sadness in Orlando’s strange predicament is highlighted, but unlike Woolf’s Orlando and the film version of 1992 (with a more melancholy Tilda Swinton in the lead role), Ruhl (In the Next Room, or The Vibrator play) brings out a playfulness in Orlando’s sexual ambiguity and challenge of tradition.

Jacqueline McKenzie’s performance as the androgynous Orlando is superb, skilfully balancing her character’s intensity and awkwardness with a sense of playfulness and genuine vulnerability. Luisa Hastings Edge plays the role of Sasha, the flirtatious, ice-skating Russian Princess, with a flawless accent and charming stage presence.

Matthew Backer, Garth Holcombe and Anthony Taufe, along with the legendary John Gaden, play the chorus of storytellers – a devise used by Ruhl to narrate the story. The narration is excessively wordy, however the actors expressive vocals and physicality are excellent, with each changing various roles and genders using minimal props. Gaden, in particular, is wonderful as the pasty Queen Elizabeth, seducing the young and awkward Orlando, in full Elizabethan dress.

Garth Holcombe, John Gaden, Matthew Backer and Anthony Taufa, Photo by James Green

Garth Holcombe, John Gaden, Matthew Backer and Anthony Taufa, Photo by James Green

Renee Mulder’s costumes and stage design play a prominent role in the play, highlighting the contemporary treatment of the story. The characters traverse a minimalist, revolving, circular stage, with two large timber staircases which the actors manipulate for each scene. Given the broad time span of the play, the stage is kept neutral and unadorned – a contemporary and practical choice but not necessarily of great visual interest. Besides the chorus in modern clothing, the stunning costumes and headpieces are richly hued, with colour used symbolically to further denote gender ambiguity.

Lighting design by Damien Cooper is superb with beautiful and evocative musical direction and composition by Alan John and sound by Steve Francis.

STC’s Resident Director Sarah Goodes has assembled a wonderful cast and production team in this one and a half hour production (with no interval). Interestingly it states a two hour running time in the program and one hour and forty-five minutes on the website. The performance on the night this reviewer saw the play certainly didn’t feel rushed. In fact the first half of the play, while Orlando was a man, felt a little slow, with a lot of narration and not nearly as interesting as Orlando as a woman. My own gender bias perhaps.

Goodes is a skilful director, delivering a light-hearted, contemporary production. However with all the right ingredients, I was hoping Orlando would pack more of a punch and take the audience on more of a ‘wild ride’, as Sarah Ruhl describes her adaptation. Perhaps in a more intimate venue, such as the Wharf Theatre, where the narrators could connect more intimately with the audience, the production may have been more engaging.


ORLANDO From the novel by Virginia Woolf adapted by Sarah Ruhl

Directed by Sarah Goodes

Produced by Sydney Theatre Company

Drama Theatre – Sydney Opera House

From November 9 until December 19, 2015

Tickets from $58 – $99

To book tickets contact the STC Box Office Tel: (02) 9250 1777 or

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