Manchester Theatre: Orlando at the Royal Exchange

Emma Nuttall
Suranne Jones as Orlando

Orlando opens at the Royal Exchange in February – but how will this adaptation of Woolf’s famous novel translate from page to stage?

The Royal Exchange 2014 spring season is shortly upon us and among the many gems gracing the programme this year, Orlando shines rather promisingly. Orlando, directed by Max Webster, is the adaptation of the semi-autobiographical novel written by Virginia Woolf, thought to be an ode to her lover, Vita Sackville West. It tells the tale of a young, irrepressible nobleman, who lives implausibly through four centuries, in many different disguises. Orlando is page to Queen Elizabeth, beau at the Court of James and Ambassador to the pompous palaces of Constantinople. It is at this point in the story that Orlando undergoes an unexpected transformation.

Orlando looks set to stand history on its venerable head with wit, vigour and exuberance

“Orlando has become a woman”, Woolf writes. “There is no denying it”. No indeed, for whilst revolution explodes around him, Orlando sleeps, awakening as a beautiful, sensuous woman, whilst maintaining his previous masculine charms and persona. Forever youthful, the ‘wits’ of the eighteenth century bore the female Orlando to tears before the crinolines of the nineteenth threaten to engulf her.

Acclaimed TV and stage actress Suranne Jones returns to The Royal Exchange to star as our gender-swapping lead. Suranne is best known for ITV police drama Scott and Bailey and her long-running role as Karen McDonald in Coronation Street. Under the direction of Webster – whose recent projects at the Royal Exchange include the Manchester Theatre Awards 2013 nominated To Kill a Mockingbird – there is a strong chance Orlando will come bursting into the twentieth century full of the energy and irreverence Woolf intended.

Though generally considered to be one of Woolf’s most accessible works, the novelist’s dialogue-light and description-heavy writing style is still very prevalent in this novel; it will be interesting to see how the story translates into an on-stage performance. With the adaptation to play script being tackled by previous Pulitzer Prize Finalist Sarah Ruhl, however, it’s highly likely that the play will stand history on its venerable head with wit, vigour and exuberance.

The production boasts a melee of talent that should bring this novel, with its resonant themes of gender, sex, love and history, bursting to life.

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