Rebecca Vaughan (Austen's Women, Jane Eyre: An Autobiography) gives a towering performance in Elton Townend Jones's adaptation of Virginia Woolf's 1928 novel. Orlando is the luscious, sweeping tale of a callow youth who dreams of being a great poet, who is granted immortality at the hand of an ageing Queen Elizabeth I, and becomes a witness to the next four centuries, shifting in gender as easily as he shifts in time.
Orlando, with his 365-bedroom ancestral home and inherited fortune, becomes a dashing young courtier at the Elizabethan court. Later, having survived an uprising in Constantinople by escaping with mountain gypsies, he makes his way back to London, where "he" morphs into "she"
The world of the play is evoked very simply with a chair and mirror draped in dust sheets. Subtle changes to Vaughan's costume, by costume designed Kate Flanaghan, indicate the changing centuries. But, in truth, the entire show turns on her performance. Capable of being both assured and vulnerable, she grasps the rich language of the play with such confidence and clarity that this lengthy (for the Fringe) monologue is never dull.
In a world where increasing numbers of people identify as non-binary, the fluidity of gender in Orlando takes on a new energy.
We also see the centuries from a female perspective: the Victorian age passes in a dark cloud of stuffy crinolines and respectable marriages; only the modern age brings a measure of freedom and (at last) writing success.
But perhaps the greatest achievement of the play is that Jones and Vaughan offer us – as Woolf does – glimpses of Orlando's inner world: haunted by an awareness of the passing of time despite having drunk the elixir of youth, and questing endlessly, through centuries, places and genders, for the truths of the shifting self.
(This review was also subsequently published in The i Newspaper)
It's fitting in many ways that, upon their tenth year visiting the Fringe, having brought as many plays to the festival stage, a company known for its mercurial takes upon classic texts and subjects would opt to focus on a book that is in essence the distillation of their particular style.
Peering into Virginia Woolf's satirical novel, Orlando: A Biography, Dyad brings the struggle of the artist's quest for truth to the stage, wrapped in an adventure through love, identity, sexuality and self.
A tale of a seemingly immortal struggling poet, born into affluence and position, as at times, he, and other times she, travels and loves his way from the court of Elizabethan England, through the intrigues of Constantinople, to the bustling streets of modern London, falling in and out of love, meeting with famed writers, and working on his great poem, The Oak Tree.
Woolf's novel was written ostensibly as a satire of the plight of writers throughout history as well as being a sly and winking dig at the familial history of her friend, fellow writer and sometime lover Vita Sackville-West. Following the outline of the book and weaving much of the beauty of the prose into the play, Elton Townend Jones has crafted a play that both does justice to the original text, as well as to the strengths of his Dyad counterpart, performer Rebecca Vaughan.
It's fair at this stage to say that Vaughan has earned the right to be considered a veteran of the Fringe, an actor capable of flitting from joy to sadness in a moment and guiding the audience along the emotional journey of the story as deftly as through the vignettes of the tale. Her turns and mannerisms in Orlando move from boastful masculine follies of youth to a wiser femininity and through into a timeless yet sylphlike figure.
Indeed Dyad Productions has visited the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for ten years, but if Orlando has anything to teach us it is that every step, every meeting and each romance and heartbreak is part of a journey. If you are already part of Dyad's journey, then you'll understand; if not, then there is no better place to meet them and fall in love yourself.
It is a huge challenge for any actor to perform on the hottest day of the year. The sweltering discomfort is increased by lighting and heavy costumes while the uncomfortable audience are harder to win over. However in Orlando, performer Rebecca Vaughan proved herself to be a consummate professional by overcoming all these setbacks, delivering a fantastic one woman show for a straight 90 minutes.
Not once in this epic play did she lose pace or focus in spite of wearing several layers of costumes and portraying multiple characters with no convenient exit and the chance for a breather in the wings!
Virginia Woolf's Orlando, supposedly inspired by the androgynous, aristocratic Vita Sackville-West, is considered by many a challenging book. It is a biography of a character that after a blessing from Elizabeth I, has a magically long life spanning four centuries, ending in the 1920s. During this time, Orlando, an aspiring poet, undergoes many transformations, including gender which gives the reader a unique insight into the developing political, sexual and class horizons.
It is a story rich in opportunities for the right person to adapt for the stage. Playwright/director Elton Townend Jones has more than risen to this challenge. His interpretation is funny yet challenging and brings the story right up to date. I liked the way he changed the narrative style from biography to autobiography – in the context of a monologue, the story becomes an intimate confessional between character and audience.
"If I am rambling, the fault is yours for listening to someone talking to themselves!"
This approach works particularly well in a small friendly studio space such as the Maltings. Perhaps this is why I felt that this play made sense of the book for me. Orlando's personal journey is everything and the audience were a part of it. Townend Jones urged his audience to "take from it what you will and take as much as you can."
The theme of transformation was not only realised via the text but in the staging too, in which set became costumes and vice versa. Kate Flanaghan, costume designer, inventively used layers and multifunctional accessories to take Orlando from Tudor times to 2018.
If I have one reservation it is that this intimate piece might have been even more effective performed in the round or as a thrust stage. However with a company who clearly have a collaborative experimental ethos, I expect this had been ruled out for a good reason.
Orlando is not only an interesting outing for literature, history and psychology buffs but is a "must see" piece of theatre for anyone who likes edgy comedy. Furthermore, it is a chance to see a strong, immensely versatile female performer take full command of her stage.
I congratulate Vaughan and Townend Jones on a highly successful collaboration. Dyad Productions appear to be going from strength to strength and I feel sure that their forthcoming tour and stint at the Edinburgh Festival (Assembly Roxy Upstairs, August 2-27) will be a huge success.
Orlando at Assembly Roxy – Upstairs sees an always welcome return to The Edinburgh Fringe Festival by Dyad Productions. Quality performances and wonderful words and stories have always been a feature of any past Dyad Productions performance and this year (their 10th anniversary with Assembly) maintains that high standard with this re-working of Virginia Woolf's "Orlando".
Written and directed by Elton Townend Jones, and brought to life by the outstanding performance skills and oratory of Rebecca Vaughan as Orlando, we are taken on a centuries spanning story from Elizabethan England to present day as, over the course of a very long life, immortal and deep searching questions of personal identity, sexuality, gender identity, fame, money, status, life, death and much more are explored... so many questions and so few answers (if any).
Orlando is a very complex character, born into wealth and status, a poet searching for immortal truths, and what we would now define as gender-neutral sexuality. With great skill as both a performer, and a storyteller, Rebecca Vaughan brings Orlando to vivid life with nothing more than words, mannerisms and body language. Our set is absolutely minimal, so it is through the performance skills of Rebecca Vaughan and the script from Elton Townend Jones that this performance truly becomes "theatre of the mind" and we as an audience are given the largest stage of all upon which to imagine Orlando's world, our own minds.
Orlando is a strange piece of work insomuch that it is not only truly timeless, but somehow seems even sharper and more relevant to our world today than when it was first written. In a world where bad language and endless references to bodily functions are desperately trying to be classed by some people as "Art", Dyad Productions are a constant reminder that the true art in theatre lies (as it has always done) in words and performances of magical power to take an audience on a journey of imagination and discovery.
Absolutely nothing to do with this show, but if you are a Dr Who fan, and are curious as to what the future may hold for our favourite Time-Lord with a new gender identity, then Orlando offers more than a few intriguing possibilities of what a long longevity character of changing sexuality might be like in thoughts and mannerisms.
Full disclosure: I love Woolf's novel, and I confess to feeling sceptical about a stage adaptation. I've never been happier to be proven wrong, as Dyad Productions' script is outstanding. Shifting to a first-person monologue feels like a natural step, rendering Orlando's confusion palpable: torn between living a vibrant life, and striving to capture its essence through poetry. Special mention must go to Rebecca Vaughan's performance. Never less than magnetic, she perfectly captures the nuances of the character in a portrayal every bit as subtle and complex as Orlando's own struggles with ideas of self, identity and gender. At the gripping climax, tears were rolling down Vaughan's face, mirrored in the eyes of much of the audience, this cynical reviewer among them.