Orlando by The Rabble (Melbourne Festival)
As many of you will know, and be bored to death hearing about, I’ve been re-reading À la recherche du temps perdu. Again. On finishing it, the urge to begin again is overwhelming. In a sense one is always re-reading Proust. I was half way through the set first time around when I started re-reading Swann’s Way. I’ve read about Marcel and Albertine while reading about Swann and Odette a generation earlier, about Saint-Loup and Rachel and Charlus and Morel... This time I decided I needed some literary methadone to break the addiction. Wisely I chose Orlando. It’s an upper. Definitely. The first chapters in particular are delicious. Dry and ingenious. Like Proust, Woolf is quite the scientist. And, most definitely, a philosopher.
Reading Orlando is also practical. An Orlando addiction is an addiction one can recover from. You realise, one morning, you can break the reading habit. (The Swiftean middle chapters get a bit dull... apart from the bit where a black cat is thrown on the fire cos it looks like coal in dingy old England.) Anyway...
Immediately after Saturday’s performance of Orlando by THE RABBLE (and, yes, they trade in shouty small caps, which I think I’ll abandon immediately... for HTML coding reasons) I was asked if Virginia would have approved. I waved the question off with an “it doesn’t matter” when I was really thinking: “shit no!!” She hated indecency with a passion.
In fact, while watching The Rabble’s staging I recalled the verdict Woolf passed on James Joyce in the mid 1920s. “Mr Joyce’s indecency in Ulysses,” she wrote, “seems to me the conscious and calculated indecency of a desperate man who feels that in order to breathe he must break the windows. At moments, when the window is broken, he is magnificent. But what a waste of energy!” Also in that essay (‘Character in Fiction’, published in the summer of 1925) Woolf chides Tom Eliot for his ‘obscurity’.
I thought I knew that article -- and the May 1924 lecture on which it was based -- pretty well. But when I came to check the quotation, I found that Woolf went on: “And, after all, how dull indecency is, when it is not the overflowing of a superabundant energy or savagery, but the determined and public spirited act of a man who needs fresh air!”
There. Could you find a better description of what The Rabble do than “the overflowing of a superabundant energy or savagery”? I’d be hard pressed to come up with a better zinger than that.
Though it follows the plot line of Woolf’s novel fairly diligently, at least to begin with, and quotes it verbatim here and there, The Rabble’s version diverges pretty radically when Orlando wakes up a woman.
In the Woolf, Orlando wakes up from a very big night (an Ambassadorial party he threw) married to some woman of low birth or other... and missing key bits of his anatomy. And finding perky new bits. But he -- or rather she -- is entirely unphased. Almost unsurprised. Orlando may have lost his family jewels, but she takes up the ducal jewels, rustles up a few horses and flees an insurrection to hide out with the gypsies.
In The Rabble’s version -- and you might choose to skip the rest of this paragraph and all of the next for its violation of good taste and, um, cos it contains spoilers. Okay? Still with me? Anyway, Orlando frisks her new bride -- though she might be Sasha, the treacherous ‘ex’ -- finds an anatomically correct zucchini and rapes her (orally) with it. The lighting is so tenebrous, so well judged, that it looks like Orlando has drawn a short sword from the girl’s drawers.
Clearly The Rabble hasn’t just veered away from the narrative of Woolf’s Orlando, it has used it as a springboard and done a triple somersault with pike. In the novel, Orlando catches his beloved Sasha sitting on the knee of a Russian sailor. In the stage play, Sasha blows the sailors’ milk bottle. And doesn’t swallow. So, yeah, I’m fairly confident Woolf would withhold her tick of approval.
Another point of difference is that Orlando is her own man, as it were, in the novel. (Woolf, as Orlando’s ‘biographer’, always refers to her role with a masculine pronoun. You know: “the biographer must always use his discretion...” rah rah rah.) Orlando is in control of her fate, if not her sex. But the Orlando that Dana Miltins plays is not. She is a wide-eyed victim of events. Woolf’s protagonist is entirely comfortable with the sex change. The Rabble’s protagonist is freaked out, to the max.
But these points of difference are observations, not criticisms. What The Rabble does is absolutely bloody remarkable. It’s like watching an old Saturn V rocket dumping the section that has got it off the ground before blasting off, one more time, towards the stratosphere. And then doing it again.
What follows the transition is a David Lynch fantasia in white. Instead of the shrieking of trumpets, we have the looped and ear-splitting screaming of Mary Helen Sassman and some much less ear-splitting death metal.
In my printed review, I talk about the production breaking the theatrical equivalent of the sound barrier. What happens then is magnificent. It’s an aesthetic and theatrical -- perhaps even sexual -- plateau.
Rather brilliantly, Orlando is rescued from victimhood -- and Miltins rescued from objectification -- in a single scene. She’s clothed and given a gentle kiss on the cheek by Sassman and the wonderful Syd Brisbane. Miltins lights up a fag and uses the rose water bowl the young Orlando once offered to Queen Elizabeth I as an ashtray. Perfect. It’s a humanising moment.
An upright piano fires up, gently, and the show concludes with a lovely speech (one of Rhoda’s) from The Waves. It reminded me of something Patti Smith might do.
I learned from one of the cast members after the show that Smith had indeed ‘done’ The Waves. (I found a clip of it on YouTube. It’s not so much a performance of The Waves as an original sung-poem to ‘Virginia’ using some of Woolf’s own writing. Smith does to Woolf what she did to Van Morrison in ‘Gloria’, say, or to Sprinsteen in ‘Because the Night’.)
After a couple of days, I still don’t know what I think about this new Orlando. I won’t be forgetting it in a hurry, if ever. But I still can’t answer the question “is it any good” with much conviction. It’s gorgeous. (Really stunning to look at.) High impact. Spectacular. But it needs work. The opening scene (in which the young Orlando has his hair tousled by the Queen, who fancies him) is so jarringly off, it almost derails the production.
Happily the next scene, a brilliant cartoon-encapsulation of Orlando’s affair with the Russian Princess Marousha Stanilovska Dagmar Natasha Iliana Romanovitch -- Sasha for short -- is a miracle of economy. It’s dumbed down a lot -- like a petty and immature infatuation rather than an earth shattering love affair -- but it’s still scintillating.
The closest the adaptation gets to Woolf, temperamentally, is an invention of The Rabble’s. In it, Orlando, newly female, experiences the joys of saying yes after having said no. (In the novel, it’s over a tiny piece of fat cut from some corned beef by a ship’s captain, I think.) In the play it’s a close encounter of the romantic kind. “Go,” she tells a man. Then: “Stay. Go. Stay.”
I confess, I haven’t yet fathomed the point of the project... beyond the smashing of windows that is, and the breathing in of magnificent, hallowed air. If that’s not enough for you...
And, bloody hell, you’d have to be an idiot not to see a show -- any show -- with Dana Miltins in it. The Australian’s not a big fan of intensifiers. So when it is published that Miltins performs with assurance and grace you should read “utter assurance and exceptional grace.” Cos that’s what I was thinkin’.
Postscript. (Or should I call it peroration?)
Apart from a (positive) mention of James Joyce in a letter to Quentin Bell, Woolf didn’t again write about Joyce until she learned of his death, and learned that he was a fortnight younger than her. The following quotation is from her diary entry for January 15, 1941:
“I remember Miss Weaver, in wool gloves, bringing Ulysses in typescript to our tea table at Hogarth House. Roger [Fry] I think sent her. Would we devote our lives to printing it? The indecent pages looked so incongruous: she was spinsterly, buttoned up. And the pages reeled with indecency. I put it in the drawer of the inlaid cabinet. One day Katherine Mansfield came, & I had it out. She began to read, ridiculing: then suddenly said, But there’s something in this: a scene that should figure I suppose in the history of literature. He was about the place, but I never saw him. Then I remember Tom [Eliot] in Ottoline’s room at Garsington saying -- it was published then -- how could anyone write again after achieving the immense prodigy of the last chapter? He was for the first time in my knowledge, rapt, enthusiastic. I bought the blue paper book, & read it here one summer I think with spasms of wonder, of discovery, & then again with long lapses of immense boredom.” [my emphasis]
From Woolf’s 125 essay Character in Fiction:
Thus, if you read Mr. Joyce and Mr. Eliot you will be struck by the indecency of the one, and the obscurity of the other. Mr Joyce’s indecency in Ulysses seems to me the conscious and calculated indecency of a desperate man who feels that in order to breathe he must break the windows. At moments, when the window is broken, he is magnificent. But what a waste of energy! And, after all, how dull indecency is, when it is not the overflowing of a superabundant energy or savagery, but the determined and public spirited act of a man who needs fresh air! Again, with the obscurity of Mr. Eliot. I think that Mr. Eliot has written some of the loveliest lines in modern poetry. But how intolerant he is of the old usages and politenesses of society - respect for the weak, consideration for the dull! I sun myself upon the intense and ravishing beauty of one of his lines, and reflect that I must make a dizzy and dangerous leap to the next, and so on from line to line, like an acrobat flying precariously from bar to bar, I cry out, I confess, for the old decorums, and envy the indolence of my ancestors who, instead of spinning madly through mid-air, dreamt quietly in the shade with a book.
Rhoda’s speech, from The Waves:
“If I look back over that bald head, I can see silence already closing and the shadows of clouds chasing each other over the empty moor; silence closes over our transient passage. This I say is the present moment; this is the first day of the summer holidays. This is part of the emerging monster to whom we are attached.”
Orlando by THE RABBLE after Virginia Woolf. Co-created by Kate Davis and Emma Valente. Directed by Emma Valente. Set and costume design by Kate Davis. Lighting, sound design and composition by Kate Davis. Presented by THE RABBLE and Malthouse Theatre in association with Melbourne Festival. Tower Theatre, October 13. Season ends October 27.