Ruined by a Book
Once upon a time, when I was younger and thinner and attractive to men, I used to go on dates. Fairly often, the gentleman in question would ask me, “You have read ‘Orlando,’ haven’t you?” It was a reasonably clever way of both displaying his erudition and inquiring after mine, which is I suppose why it happened so often. After all, with a name like mine, being a reader of books, how could I not? Well, being self-educated and pretty completely uninterested in a well-rounded education, I’d hacked my own path through the jungle of literature, with a concentration on The English Novel Since 1740. I read Richardson and Fielding and Boswell and Johnson and Fanny Burney, who turned out to be my favorite English novelist ever – being as she was the anti-Henry James, scrupulously narrating the rise and fall of fortunes with a journalistic exactitude about exactly how much of a fortune came and left and who had squandered it and how. (No muttering discreetly about Unspeakable Toilet Fortunes.)
I eagerly plowed on through Austen, then the Victorians, and there I stopped, with an exception for Forster. Virginia Woolf didn’t interest me, “modernism” being exactly what I wanted to escape in my reading and writing (“Margaret goes to the mall she feels nothing” stories being my bete noire). So it was some time before I got to Orlando – I think because I wanted to see the movie and figured I’d better read it first. I was unprepared for how dry and witty it was – this was not what I’d been taught to expect from Woolf!
And I loved the movie, Tilda Swinton being a favorite actress of mine. Then, when Charles Isherwood raved about the stage version in the Times’ Fall Preview, especially what it promised from David Greenspan as Queen Elizabeth I, I had to get a ticket. I’ve made a bit of a hobby of collecting Elizabeths; I’ve seen pretty much every interpretation on film – Bette Davis, Helen Mirren, Glenda Jackson, Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, you name it, I’ve seen it. One of the biggest thrills of my trip to London ten years ago was seeing Her tomb in Westminster Cathedral – it’s really her! some part of me shouted over and over, discreetly and Britishly suppressed and silent. Her! Right there! Now, to Quentin Crisp’s version, I could add another male performer’s take.
The staging and costuming is, appropriately for a Virginia Woolf novel, minimalist. The Queen’s huge and elaborate dress and headgear are set on a flat, sandwich-board piece that slips over Greenspan’s neck. His Elizabeth is the “classic” Elizabeth-in-decline, old and smelly and demanding physical affection by dint of her power even as all parties pretend that the affection is given because her beauty is eternal and unfaded. Given the danger of slipping into a Bette Davis imitation, Greenspan acquits himself pretty well, understating the role just enough to avoid (let’s coin a German word, shall we?) drag-slapstick. Francesca Faridany looks like Tilda Swinton, or at least her hair has been made to remind us of the last actress to make the role her own. I’m not sure I understand that choice; why call up the movie so strongly? I don’t remember the book well, so perhaps there’s some detailed description of Orlando’s hair that requires it.
The wit in the story is mostly underplayed, with the exception of the Archduke-duchess Henrietta/Harry, who is too ridiculous to play any other way. The execution is a bit stilted overall, as you might expect when all the players are narrators speaking in the author’s voice, and near the end, as Woolf describes the modern world, the narrator device gets increasingly clunky. I’m glad I saw it, but maybe after the other night’s Divine Sister, I’m a bit ruined for more sophisticated things right now.