Melbourne Festival: Orlando

Tell me a story. Tell me in a way that it’s not been told before. This is the bliss of theatre. The Rabble’s Orlando is so far from the experience of reading Virgina Woolf’s book, but as close to knowing its essence, I want to say soul, as possible.

Orlando. Photo by Sarah Walker
Orlando. Photo by Sarah Walker

Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando was a love letter to Vita Sackville West about a young man who never grew old, became a woman and lived through the 16th to 19th centuries. This Orlando is a lusty and passionate response to Virgina Woolf (and to great women writers and to all writers and poets) that’s as gentle and beautiful, as cruel and painful, as liberating and celebratory, and as embarrassing and shameful as love.

Artistic directors, Emma Valente and Kate Davis, have collaborated for six years with a group of artists (in Melbourne and Sydney) to examine familiar stories, and re-imagine and re-tell them in a new context with an unexpected aesthetic.  Their work is so dense and layered that it guarantees a different experience for everyone watching – and response ranges from “this is why I go to theatre” to “this is why I don’t go to theatre”. If you don’t understand what’s going on in one of their shows, don’t worry. Find what you enjoy and know that no one else will see the show quite like you do.

Orlando‘s re-imagined world is milky/semeny white, with crunchy pebbles, billowy tulle, soft fox fur, crisp cotton, smooth pearls and a creamy pool that flows and stagnates though the centuries. It’s a world that begs us to touch and feel and roll naked in it; it’s almost cruel to make us just watch. And that’s before we want to taste.

Dana Miltins performance as Orlando is exquisite, almost hypnotic. For most of the night Orlando says little. Great acting is rarely the words said, it’s reacting to what’s being said and done, and her reactions pull us into Orlando’s heart to see and feel his/her world like she/he does.

The only thing that rips our attention away from her are Orlando’s loves, who are Syd Brisbane and Mary Helen Sassman. If Orlando is all heart and emotion, they are the baser parts.  Sassman’s hilarious discussion of our lusty bits is unforgettable. And there’s Brisbane in a sporran with a kabana, which may come back the next time you see a Shakespeare.

Each are so watchable in themselves, but the balance and contrast of the three performers is the sweet, salt and spice that makes this work so finger-licking delicious.

If you own a falling-apart copy of Woolf’s book, this Orlando will be as precious as a first edition. If you haven’t read it, don’t worry.  I thought I’d read it, but according to the receipt/bookmark in my copy – bought at the Murphy Sister’s feminist bookstore in Adelaide in 1993, must have been after seeing the 1992 film – I didn’t get past p.49. The joy of The Rabble’s work is that there’s so much more to indulge in than a mere appreciation of the source.  And, like me, you may be inspired to pop the book on your must-read pile.

At the Festival Hub at a full panel discussion about identity, drag and self Boy George (who I love more now than I did in the 80s) said, “Sometimes the most political thing you can do is just be yourself.” How often are we simply ourselves? Orlando is that search for self through gender and time and relationships and it’s more honest and gutsy than anything currently being screamed about gender, identity and feminism.

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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