Orlando is by no means an easy novel to pull off on stage: Virginia Woolf’s 1928 book charts 300 years in the life of its genderfluid, time-travelling eponymous poet protagonist. Robert Wilson, admittedly with a rather liberal approach to the source text, produced a one-person Orlando starring Jutta Lampe at the Schaubühne back in 1989. 30 years later, British director Katie Mitchell has done it with a narrator, eight actors, about as many cameras and 89 costume changes, giving Woolf her trademark “live cinema” treatment. Mitchell’s production runs like finely-tuned clockwork, each shot and scene meticulously planned. To gaze above at the film screen over the stage is to see a cohesive filmic composition, to look below a machine of ensemble and crew working in razor-sharp precision.
Orlando (Jenny König) is a figure in temporal and sexual flux, which Mitchell playfully represents through humorous anachronisms aplenty, from Peaches’ “Fuck the Pain Away” in an 18th-century court to poetaster Nicholas Greene (Carolin Haupt) snorting up lines while waxing lyrical about the greats of Ancient Greece. The satire of the novel oozes organically through Revolt. She said. Revolt again. author Alice Birch’s script and Mitchell’s production but particularly effective are Jenny König’s glances and grimaces to the camera that pierce the fourth wall and bring the audience in on the cringiness of situations and actions. Think Fleabag gone Elizabethan. Mitchell even finds time to take a swipe at Brexit as Orlando departs for Constantinople, inserting clips of pro-EU demonstrators in London as the narrator ironically lists all the things Orlando will miss about Britain.
But with all Mitchell’s technical prowess, her ruthless, almost clinical artistic discipline, Orlando feels somewhat like a victory lap for third-wave feminism. Here, she’s not attacking the patriarchal canon but rather revelling in the emancipatory text of an author she dearly admires. The novel may have been light years ahead of its time in 1928, but does its essential message of “we’re all born naked and the rest is drag”, to quote Tede Matthews, still pack such a punch some 90 years later? That depends. To a Thursday-night Wilmersdorfer audience, perhaps. In a more alternatively inclined Berlin bubble, perhaps not. This may be Woolf at her most radical, but it isn’t Mitchell as hers.
Orlando is a masterfully executed stage adaptation of a challenging text. Mitchell has asserted herself yet again as an artistically uncompromising auteur with an instantly recognisable signature style. Yet it is this very same style that at times hinders both Woolf’s and Birch’s texts from breathing and the cast from flourishing. The result is a technical triumph that somehow feels rushed but simultaneously long enough, with a runtime of just under two hours. All in all, Mitchell certainly delivers a production worthy of Woolf – and she does it with precision and wit.
Orlando | Directed by Katie Mitchell, script by Alice Birch, Schaubühne, Wilmersdorf. Sep 11, 12, 13, Oct 25, 26, 27.