Last week, Tim Stanley proudly flaunted his ignorance in The Telegraph over what exactly gender is, snorting: “Apparently a “cis” is someone who identifies with the same gender that they were born with. So that’s a thing now”.
Yes, Tim, it is a thing now – and, as this difficult but well-executed production of Virginia Woolf’s quasi-autobiographical gender-bending novel proves, it’s been a thing for at least a few centuries. Or millennia. It’s difficult to tell; time in this play is malleable, contorting and folding over itself, jumping hundreds of years, in a lifetime, in an hour and forty minute run-time.
The staging is sparse enough to bear the sometimes relentlessly mercurial plot,with Keble’s O’Reilly theatre draped all in white, and with the chorus that physically illustrates Woolf’s beautifully lyrical descriptions in androgynous white singlets. The chorus were initially over-stylized, a little too smug in their slickly rehearsed stichomythia delivery of Woolf’s text. Making a stab at DV8-style physicality was always going to be a push for a troupe of actors rather than dancers. But their energy and obvious relish went on to make for some of the most striking images of the night, as they conjured up everything from Elizabethan feasts and carnivals to the busy streets of 20th century London.
Dominic Applewhite and Gráinne O’Mahony alternate in the titular role and that of Elizabeth I, in accordance with the original’s fluid conception of gender. I saw Applewhite first – having missed him in The Pillowman, in a performance that stirred up what The Tab so eloquently described as a “massive circle-jerk within the student body”, I was expecting fireworks. He was phenomenal, but not in the way that I’d expected. Apart from climactic moments (screaming his lover’s name in the midst of a storm whilst the clock strikes midnight), his Orlando was spritely and vital, but with a sort of Holden Caulfield-cum-Hamlet contradictiveness, a difficulty in expression that was obviously very complex, but neither the audience nor Orlando never really had time to get to the bottom of it. We feel, as Woolf puts it: “as if he had been hooked by a great fish through the nose and rushed through the waters unwillingly, yet with his own consent”.
As for the gender-swap halfway, it was remarkable in that it just seemed so, normal. Which is what is is, of course – Woolf descends from lofty poeticism to matter-of-fact statement as it happens: “let psychologists and biologists determine. But there’s no denying it – she was a woman”. Gráinne O’Mahony put in an excellent turn as Elizabeth I, with a perfect balance of sensuality, pathos, and extreme power, mixed just evenly enough that we can’t quite tell them apart.
In round 2, the roles were switched – although, it was worth seeing twice just to rewatch Femi Nylander’s comic turn as Romanian Duchess/Duke (it becomes clear – sort of). O’Mahony struggled for Applewhite’s multivalence and profundity as Orlando, but went some way to making up for it in her fire and zest. Applewhite was also strong as Elizabeth I, but the parallelism between the two characters was unclear, muddying the device – it seemes it would have been better to have one Elizabeth, and two alternating Orlandos.
Nevertheless, despite its occasional thorniness, this was certainly one of the most intellectually ambitious productions I’ve seen in Oxford, and although it might not have achieved all of its aims, it certainly made one important one – showing up people like Tim Stanley for the crass, uninformed, brutish bigots they are. All we need to do now is to use Orlando’s profits to send him a copy of Gender Trouble.
Orlando is playing at the Keble O’Reilly Theatre until Saturday 22nd November.
IMAGE/ George Mather