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“He Was A Woman”: Orlando Enchants London’s West End

Women's History Month X KCLSU: Staging a modernist, queer story, of which Virginia Woolf is at the centre.

Spellbinding, tender, and heartfelt, Emma Corrin’s performance in Neil Bartlett’s recent adaptation of Orlando has been unequivocal magic. An adventure across reckless seas, amid the iced bite of a Jacobean winter, conjures what has become the famous raison d’etre of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando — her hero’s transformation from male to female overnight.

Image credits: Georgia Gibson.

Unfazed, stunningly empowering, and far from traumatic, the impact of this transformation is owed to the way in which Corrin embodies it. The actor glows under ivory moonlight, soaking in the character’s freedom of trans-identity and simultaneously severing the shackles that bind contemporary queerphobia. Orlando embraces every possibility of every gendered experience.

Corrin impressively embodies a ‘Butlerian’ ideal of gender performance - which suggests gender is an external act for internal validation - underpinned by ripples of androgynous aesthetic. Adopting a contemplative stance, whilst deftly slipping between subliminal body language, the figure of Orlando asks the deepest questions of self-introspection. “Who am I?” and, more importantly, am I to be defined by the clothes I wear, and the way I feel wearing them?

“Isn’t it really just an ode to freedom and love?”, Corrin argues in a recent interview with The Guardian’s Claire Armitstead. Indeed, the original novel penned in 1928 is often considered ‘the most charming love letter in literature’; a dedication to Woolf’s decade-long romance with Vita Sackville-West. It has since transformed into a canonical treasure of modernist queer fiction.

“It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple: one must be a woman manly, or a man womanly.”

-Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Perhaps most interesting about Woolf’s novel and its theatrical successor is the misogyny, always present, in the backdrop. Orlando transforms into a woman and is immediately faced with the questions and limitations of their ‘femininity.’ They cannot keep their English estate. They cannot own property. They cannot even use a rapier, and this, Orlando resents the most.

But the focus is not on the physical or chemical discrepancies between man and woman, rather the societal flaws that seek to deepen the void between them. The reality is unfortunate. Orlando is treated differently depending on whether they present ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’: a grave commentary, reinforcing the impassable misogyny woven into our social fabric. It seems, then, that Woolf is projecting her female experience onto an androgynous persona so that they can travel across time — some 350 years — and undergo a spontaneous gender transition, noticing that nothing can truly separate the binary entities of male and female. Not even clothing.

Image credits: Georgia Gibson.

Now, we celebrate Woolf as a pioneer of this phenomenon. Feminist, modernist, and queer, the Kensington-born writer continues to represent those who have faced centuries of prejudice, including Michael Grandage — the openly gay director of the recent Orlando production.

He brings Woolf to life effortlessly. Her transgressive novel, dazzling with joie de vivre and an almost satirical giddiness, is translated perfectly for theatre, with its grandiose costumes and soft-coloured lighting. And, despite being nearly a century old, the director believes the original novel to be ahead of its time:

“How extraordinary to come up with the line ‘he was a woman’…I think we are just catching up with her.”

-Grandage, Interview with Financial Times.

Woolf had already propagated many of the beliefs we would now class as modern feminism. In a later work, A Room of One’s Own, Woolf expresses a simple feminist philosophy: woman must be free in every field. She who wants to write must have equality, freedom, rights, money, an education, and a room of her own. Isn’t this exactly what Orlando can’t have as a woman?

Woolf refuses to conform and makes a point of it. The novel’s reincarnation on the West End stage feels necessary and relevant as a result — it seems we are at a turning point in contemporary gender politics, as we find ourselves looking to writers of the past, in order to write our future.

The play has indeed enchanted London’s Garrick Theatre and beyond, inspiring a love for woman: love for herself, love for others, and love for the female experience. Orlando dispels the existence of an impassable void that divides ‘male’ and ‘female’, and instead unifies them, unfazed. Never losing touch with its origins, the play truly encapsulates the Woolfian legacy: the immortal legacy of a feminist icon.

Edited by Georgia Gibson (Theatre Editor.)