The new season at the Royal Exchange kicks off with Sarah Ruhl's adaptation of Virginia Woolf's 1928 novel of the same name.This eagerly anticipated production is led from the front by Suranne Jones in the title role, last seen at this venue in 2009 in Blithe Spirit.
Orlando is the tale of a young male who is fancied by many, including Queen Elizabeth I (Richard Hope). Orlando ends up a Court and then falls madly and passionately in love with a Russian Princess Sasha (Molly Gromadzki). Set against the backdrop of the Great Frost, this dominates Act One and provides some lovely moments of physical theatre.
At the end of this relationship, Orlando requests he be sent to Constantinople to get away from the attentions of the Romanian Aristocrat (Thomas Arnold) who has begun to pursue Orlando and whose persistent attempts to woo him fail miserably and he leaves her behind. Debauchery and partying lead him to sleep for a week and when he awakens, he is a woman; no doubt.
Act Two sees the action race through the 18th and 19th centuries and Orlando finds love again with Shelmerdine (Tunji Kasim) and feels the pressure to marry in Victorian Society. The scenes in which Shelmerdine and Orlando interact are truly a delight to behold, encapsulating a young couple in love beautifully.
Continually returning to his attempt to write poetry, Orlando blazes through 400 years, barely ageing a day until she reaches the grand old age of 36 and by now, it is the 20th century and the world had changed beyond recognition. Haunted by the early dalliance with Sasha, Orlando has lived a full life and has to live in the present moment.
With a minimalist set that is beautifully lit (Charles Balfour), the small but incredibly versatile cast make great use of the space and need few props to bring the script to life. The comic timing of the three chorus members (Kasim, Hope and Arnold) is a delight and they bring the narrative to life.
The focus on narrative rather than dialogue can be difficult to follow at times and can be difficult to access. The physical comedy continues throughout, with varied levels of success. Some scenes work better than others and some are drawn and lack the momentum of what has gone before. It is the strength of the cast that allows the production to shine; all punctuated by the musician (Hetti Price).
Orlando is a roaring start to the season for the Royal Exchange, which will no doubt see many a happy faces after this pacy production.
Orlando is at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 22 March