I’m judging The Age Critics Prize at the Melbourne Festival again in 2012. The award is only open to works that have been substantially contributed to by Australian artists. That criterion was imposed by the judges last year to address concerns about the levelness of the playing field. We found ourselves in a position where quality new Australian work was being commissioned by the Festival, but we couldn’t in good conscience give it the award when it was up against international work that had been rehearsed and developed for years, then perfected through being performed on the international festival circuit. Rather than allow home-team prejudice to influence our decision-making on the sly, we thought it a better bet to overtly restrict the competition. (Ironically, I get the strong sense that Back to Back’s Ganesh vs the Third Reich – which took out last year’s prize – would have won against all comers anyway.)
The Rabble’s Orlando emerges as a strong contender this year. It is one of the rare shows that will, I imagine, leave most critics humbled by the manifest inadequacy of words to describe and evaluate it, though perhaps less in a depressive, Hamlet-like ”Words, words, words” kind of way than in echo of the exasperated chagrin from Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: “Words, words,” as Guildenstern muses, ”They’re all we have to go on.”
This is a roundabout way of admitting that I don’t think this review really touches the sides. Perhaps you can help me out in the comments. Orlando is a work that invites and deserves serious discussion, and one of the things that makes it difficult to write about (and thrilling to watch) is that it is less concerned with ‘storytelling’ than in representing the ephemera of gendered experience - all those pre-intellective elements of being a man or being a woman, stuff we’re not even conscious of most of the time – through an intrinsically histrionic language dominated by the visual, the bodily, the gestural, and the spatial. So any review has to be a genuine act of translation from a language where words, if anything, tend to get in the way.
For me, the most impressive aspect of the work is how subtle and complex an imaginative engagement with gender it creates. While public discourse on gender issues tends to scream with obviousness and rash generalisation and often rancour, The Rabble dives into more obscure truths – the vulnerability of boys to patriarchy, say, or how women can be its staunchest agents. It’s a show that should leave men closer to understanding what it might be like to be a woman, and vice versa – and that is a towering achievement indeed.
Orlando, The Rabble, Malthouse Theatre, Until Oct 27.
Playing with gender is a traditional prerogative of the theatre, and The Rabble’s superb adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is an erotic and funny, alarming and profound interrogation of the subject. The theatrical mavericks have created a visceral and intellectual engagement with the modernist novel that will intrigue anyone with a deep knowledge of the text, but remains accessible to those who have always been a bit afraid of Virginia Woolf.
The show’s singular achievement is to have hit upon a style of theatre, largely visual, that wrests a delicate authority from the subversions of burlesque.
It begins with the time-travelling, gender-bending Orlando (Dana Miltins) – in ruff, doublet and hose – looking blankly lost. He is standing in a shallow pool of opaque white fluid, suggestive of both breast milk and semen. That visual ambiguity serves as a spawning ground for a performance in which gender expectations are wrong-footed at almost every point.
Orlando as a boy stands mute, labile and receptive, as Queen Elizabeth I (Mary Helen Sassman) bellows her famous Spanish Armada speech and reaches for a longsword, uncertain whether to knight him or cut his head off. His Russian lover Sasha is comically unladylike, chewing gum with revolting gusto, or delivering (with stiffy-wilting intensity and obsessiveness) an uninhibited ode to her love of penis.
The show is embroidered with coarse and bawdy clowning, and has more phallic objects in it than your average adult store, but behind it lurks sharp critique of patriarchal culture. The poet Nicholas Greene (Syd Brisbane) explodes with a stream-of-consciousness rant that builds to become a sinister and hilarious parody of the self-important, male-dominated art of literary criticism. And he does it while chowing down on a rather large bit of cabana.
Yet the performance can shift gear in an instant from lampooning male authority to a subtle discovery of the abjections of female experience. After Orlando’s vivid transformation from man to woman, we get a silent scene where she stands, servile and expressionless and alone, making tea as if that is all she is good for. Miltins ends with a long and rhythmical recitation of a passage from the novel, one that softly insists on the fluidity and contingency of gender identity.
Spectacular lighting and atmospheric sound design, committed and skilled performances, and a process where almost every creative decision ripples with intelligence and feeling, make Orlando a production that could hold its own at any arts festival in the world. It leaves you to wonder, as the novel does, just how much misogyny, how much of the endless “battle of the sexes”, comes down to a lack of imagination.