Orlando (The Rabble)
Theatre Republic, The Loft
September 16 – 20
Bringing a classic literary work to theatrical life is never an easy task. Not only will audience members have expectations based on the original text (having read it or not), but there are assumptions that its timeless themes will be contextualised as evidence of their endurance. And this is certainly the case with “Orlando”, Virginia Woolf’s gender-bending parable, which tells of its protagonist Orlando changing gender from man to woman.
Spanning almost 400 years in the lifetime of its central character, “Orlando” is certainly epic in both narrative and dramatic possibilities. However, in the case of The Rabble’s realisation, they are possibilities left ignored at the expense of the story, as the work is presented almost like an art installation of little dramatic substance, but much artistic pretension.
The starkly simple but symbolically-laden staging remains minimalist throughout the show; the performance takes place in a trough of milky-white water before a giant mirror and delicate white fabric backdrop. Similarly, although there is a delight in the show’s nod to its initial Elizabethan England setting in its costumes (all white) and bawdy banter (Mary Helen Sassman is the standout performer as both Queen Elizabeth I and brazen Russian princess Sasha), there is a sense of self-indulgence in the artsyness of the show’s languid pacing, prolonged moments and full frontal nudity.
While it is well-handled, the story’s essential sex change scene is unnecessarily extended and although Orlando’s new self-realisation that her life will now involve pouring out tea and asking lords how they like it, this does not need to be punctuated by having to wait and watch while a kettle boils. Similarly, while there are some highlight moments where the precise language of the original text is utilised, Orlando’s final, eloquent (feminist) manifesto-like monologue needs an edit.
Examination of gender roles in patriarchal society seems to have occupied a prominent part of programming at this year’s Brisbane Festival. As important as theatre is in encouragement of social/political dialogue, it is easy for audiences to become jaded to this in their search for an entertaining night out. Making imaginative demands on an audience can offer up rich rewards when they succeed, however, with such limited narrative clues upon which to base their experience, in this instance, they clearly don’t work.