I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester.
A novel kind of play
Actress Suranne Jones and playwright Sarah Ruhl both relish a challenge. Sarah Ruhl has turned Virginia Woolf's 1928, time travelling 'biography' into the Royal Exchange's latest production. It requires Suranne Jones to be on stage for the whole night, playing Orlando as both a man and a woman.
At the start of the play, Orlando is a wide-eyed 16-year-old nobleman delighting in a world of fantasy. He catches the eye of Queen Elizabeth 1st (a wonderful, dragged up performance by Richard Hope) and is soon invited to share her bed.
Unfortunately for the Queen, Orlando's heart is stolen by a mercurial Russian princess called Sasha. Molly Gromadzki, who plays Sasha, is a superb dancer both on the stage and on a wire which reels her above the audience's heads. When Sasha skates on the frozen Thames it is as though she is weaving a web around Orlando.
Molly Gromadzki as Sasha
The first half of the play ends with Orlando waking up to find that he has become a woman. Such is the frantic pace of Max Webster's production that we somehow just accept this transformation. Suffice to say, if that's what can happen after a wild night in Constantinople, some tourists might opt to stay sober in the future.
Thomas Arnold, Richard Hope and Tunji Kasim take on the roles of both the chorus and characters required at different stages in the production. Other actors also narrate their own stories. This sometimes sounds like a series of over-lapping monologues and takes some getting used to but does have the advantage of meaning that we get to hear Virginia Woolf's exquisite prose.
After the interval much of the bawdy revelry and humour gives way to a more lyrical style. Suranne Jones' performance takes on a poignant note as, in this supernatural tale, Orlando enters the twentieth century both beguiled and disorientated by the modern world. All in all it's a tour de force by the actress who last appeared at the Royal Exchange in 2009 in Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit.
Whether Sarah Ruhl's Orlando is a play or a dramatised novel is a matter for debate. However, it's a masterclass in how to turn a classic work of literature into a magical night at the theatre.