Why Virginia Woolf’s Orlando speaks to gender fluidity today

Published in The FT August 22, 2019

“It is enough for us to state the simple fact; Orlando was a man till the age of 30; when he became a woman and has remained so ever since.” Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando was published in 1928, yet contains an expression of gender fluidity that feels as fresh and matter of fact as if it were written today.

Orlando is a fantastical mock-biography which follows a young English nobleman from adolescence in the reign of Elizabeth I through 400 years, a sex change and several love affairs, ending in 1928. It’s probably the most giddy and joyful of her books. Woolf herself considered it “a writer’s holiday”, and was inspired by her love affair with Vita Sackville-West, herself partial to cross-dressing.

Today, when gender fluidity and pansexuality are enjoying greater visibility, it’s no wonder that it is Orlando that seems to speak loudest to us. Jeanette Winterson called Orlando “the first English language trans novel”. And it’s proving an irresistible draw for adaptors, finding its way on to stage and screen. Next month, the British theatre director Katie Mitchell opens an English language production, adapted by Alice Birch, at the Schaubühne in Berlin; it comes to London’s Barbican in spring 2020.

“Orlando is having a renaissance because it’s the defining book about gender fluidity, historically speaking,” Mitchell says. “The statements [Woolf was] making are radical. The conversation now about gender fluidity and intersectionality is so strong, but there aren’t yet the plays written about it. So this book is suddenly really important.”

Orlando offers a playful yet punchy critique of the limitations of gendered roles and labels. “The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity,” Woolf writes of her hero(ine). Orlando is still Orlando — their gender is not what defines their sense of self, even if it changes how the world perceives them.

The novel also satirises how society discriminates on gender grounds. Once a woman, Orlando is constrained by corsets and patronising men alike, and is legally no longer able to inherit her ancestral home.

Woolf’s novel has long attracted adaptors. In 1989, Robert Wilson put it on stage, while the brilliant film by Sally Potter starring Tilda Swinton was released in 1992. The American playwright Sarah Ruhl also adapted it for theatre in 2010.

But Orlando is certainly having a moment now. A new gallery at Charleston in Sussex, once home to Woolf’s sister the painter Vanessa Bell, recently opened with an exhibition of contemporary responses to the novel called Orlando at the present time. Chanya Button’s film Vita & Virginia, released last month, dramatises the women’s love affair and the subsequent writing of Orlando. Playwright Lucy Roslyn’s solo show Orlando, currently at the Edinburgh Fringe, uses Woolf’s novel to underpin her own contemporary love story, suggesting we’re all more than our labels allow. And in December, Olga Neuwirth presents a major new operatic version at the Vienna State Opera, with costumes by Rei Kawakubo — whose Comme des Garçons show at Paris Fashion Week also revelled in the influence of Woolf’s non-gender-conforming character.

For Mitchell, staging Orlando at the Schaubühne is something of an artistic homecoming. The first play she ever saw in Germany was Wilson’s Orlando at the same theatre. That production is still warmly remembered in Berlin, so when the theatre was searching for a “famous title” for Mitchell to direct, they suggested Orlando — to her astonishment and delight.

Woolf had already had a transformational impact on Mitchell’s career. In 2006, she adapted her late experimental novel The Waves, a polyphonic work that moves between six different voices. Mitchell pioneered the use of live filming on stage, which she has gone on to finesse over scores of shows.

In Mitchell’s Waves (the production dropped Woolf’s definite article), the actors constructed, lit and filmed scenes in full view of the audience on stage, adding live sound effects and narrating interior monologues over the top. With this approach Mitchell found a way to convey the gap between Woolf’s characters’ inner lives and the faces they constructed for the world. She revealed the artifice — projecting beautiful filmic images, but also showing how they were made. In doing so, Mitchell also pushed forward how such technology could be used live on stage.

Woolf experimented formally in her fiction, and Mitchell recognised that if she were to translate that she must innovate in her own medium of theatre. The use of live filming on stage is now so common it’s hard to remember when it felt trailblazing — but in Waves it did.

“Woolf’s work led to us creating a way of making theatre,” says Mitchell, “and now we’re using it to create our most ambitious show ever. It’s lovely to return to her work, and apply our evolved skill to an unstageable monster!”

Where with The Waves Mitchell had the challenge of presenting six different characters’ overlapping inner monologues, with Orlando she must convey the experience of time-travel through history. She and Birch have “tried to do the impossible”, galloping through every period in the book — as well as bringing the action up to date, so that Orlando ends up in the year 2019 rather than 1928.

Just eight actors whirl through the centuries, playing 90 characters between them. They are guided by a contemporary narrator from a glass box — a theatrical equivalent of the mischievous intrusions of the biographer’s voice in the novel. The stage functions like a film set, with wardrobe departments operating in full view to transform the actors through 89 quick costume changes. Above the stage, a screen shows a live edit, playfully cut with pre-recorded footage.

In Waves, Mitchell included the figure of Woolf herself on stage. Will Vita or Virginia be making an appearance in Orlando — which has been called “the longest love letter in literature”? Not this time.

“I think it would make the book less than it was,” reflects Mitchell. “It’s not bio-fic about her affair. Woolf’s taken her particular experience of a gay relationship and made it into a general piece of art about gender fluidity — and that is such an amazing act.”

Mitchell keeps a picture of Woolf on her wall: she’s a source of continual inspiration. “I think she is for so many women, actually,” Mitchell adds. “She’s a great artist, and she’s always intellectually way ahead of her time. Whenever I do her work, my theatremaking capacities are pushed to the limit. It forces you to really raise your game.”

September 5-13, schaubuehne.de

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