“I am all I need to be. I am Orlando,” ran the powerful concluding lines in this timely and enthralling adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel. The astonishing, virtuoso one-woman performance by Rebecca Vaughan, bringing her array of vocal and expressive talents to Elton Townend Jones’ script and direction, gripped this Inverness audience at Eden Court from start to finish. And the strong statement of identity – the assertion of a soul determined to be him/ herself, come what may – emerged as very much a 21st-century theme.
Orlando is a curiosity in Woolf’s work: s/he is an immortal poet of indeterminate gender and indeterminate epoch, the narrative stretching between the late 1500s and – in Dyad’s production – the present day. Orlando’s journeying from a privileged life in England’s rural midland counties to Blackfriars in London, to Constantinople and back, takes in Queen Elizabeth’s court, life amongst gypsies, 18th-century coffee-house culture and its literary world, the 19th century below its “stifling sullen canopy”, and the tragic 20th century of global conflict. With a source more overtly satirical than Woolf’s other work, Orlando’s mockery roams easily across targets as diverse as the Victorians, critics, poets themselves, and the arrogance of celebrated men. The protagonist/narrator’s boundless insights spring from the curious freedom of this imagined lifespan (s/he only ages 36 years across more than 3 centuries), the unifying elements being Orlando and the quest for Love, Truth, and “the freedom to be.”
Orlando does not seem the ideal text for dramatisation; Woolf’s subjective 3rd-person narrative offers a fertile mind that is at hand to play, bemoan, speculate at will. Yet Dyad’s production breathes life into a classic, teasing out every last syllable of contemporary relevance and the potential for humour in Orlando’s swingeing one-liners: “Fame is a charlatan,” “I am a most magnificent idiot,” “Nothing thicker than a knife’s blade separates happiness from melancholy,” and – referring to a perennial critic-antagonist – “he just loves fancy cuisine and bitching about duchesses.”
And the whole shebang – the musings and mockery, the poetry and prose of it all – flourishes vivaciously before us because of the indefatigable, wonderful Vaughan, skipping across the spare set for 90 minutes with just the briefest sound and musical cues. Whether she is describing urban delights, marvelling at incessant social change, or brilliantly adopting self-important misogynistic male voices, she grips and amuses, not missing a step. The fluency of the script and its stylish delivery are complemented by tonally-sensitive lighting, and a simplicity of staging which emphasises the thematic – that outer garments are dispensable, objects of “the world’s easy liking” and ultimately worth rather less than the quest for “the me at the heart of this,” as Orlando puts it. Dyad Productions deservedly won the ThreeWeeks Editors’ Award at the Edinburgh Festival in 2018 for Orlando, and audiences across its tour will surely enjoy this tour de force.