Musical review: Orlando, fortyfivedownstairs

This adaptation of Virginia Woolf's classic novel, 'Orlando', is promising but patchy.
Orlando. Image is of four actors in red jackets back to back with each other and with arms raised in front of them.

Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando is almost a century old and yet its themes of gender, sexuality and identity still resonate today. This touchstone of queer literature has been adapted into many different artistic forms over the decades, and now Antipodes Theatre Company has had a go at translating the story for the stage. Antipodes’ Orlando is an eclectic musical mishmash – a raucous romp that takes the themes of the original and filters them through a contemporary lens.

Clocking in at just under 90 minutes, Orlando whizzed along at a dizzying pace and barely paused for breath. Rather than a straightforward narrative, we were presented with vignettes of Orlando’s journey. Some familiarity with the source material would have been helpful going in, as I was quite lost throughout the performance and found it difficult to grasp a sense of time and place.

From what I could decipher, the titular character began as somewhat of a morose, wealthy young man with no purpose, who went through a radical transformation after a romantic encounter with a Russian princess. After a period of depression, one day Orlando woke up as a woman, promptly accepted this change in gender and set out to experience the world. Orlando lived for centuries and became a poet and writer fascinated with love. Or at least I think that’s what happened.

This production featured a wonderful ensemble of performers who also helped create the piece in collaboration with composer Rachel Lewindon and writer Willow Sizer. Their connection to each other and the material came through clearly on stage and created a sense of confidence and camaraderie among the cast. Their voices blended gorgeously together, and they pulled off Lewindon’s intricate harmonies magnificently. 

The music in Orlando was unique and exciting. The influence of US theatre composer Dave Malloy could be heard in the songs, which ranged from traditional folk music to classical and electropop. There were shades of some of Malloy’s musical works, such as Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812 and Ghost Quartet, which funnily enough was Antipodes’ first project back in 2019. But Lewindon and Sizer’s score was truly original and there were some breathtaking musical moments in this production; the ‘Fisherman song’ (no song names were provided in the program) and the last 10 minutes of the show really stood out sonically. All the music was performed live by only two musicians, Lewindon and Imogen Cygler, using keyboards and live-looping, and the effect was impressive. 

Sizer’s book is witty, poetic and fast-paced, blending classical language with more contemporary dialects. These punches of modern vernacular swiftly brought everything on stage into a more contemporary space, often to humorous affect. Orlando’s constant complaining that they just want to ‘go to sleep’ was particularly funny. 

Various issues with the sound design on opening night prevented the audience from clearly hearing all the intricate details of the book and lyrics, and one performer’s consistently crackling microphone was an unfortunate distraction. The somewhat challenging space of fortyfivedownstairs didn’t help these problems either, leading to pieces of information and a more general enjoyment of the songs to be lost to many in the audience.

Orlando was somewhat of a diamond in the rough. Although the piece was stirring at times and beautifully hypnotic in others, this production still felt like a work in progress. As mentioned, the narrative was not particularly clear to the uninitiated, and the design was a bit dull and odd. Most of the cast were dressed as if they were going on a hike, all parkas and bucket hats, and a pool surrounded by pebbles sat centre stage, but none of these choices seem to coalesce with the story. There were moments when the design really could have opened up, such as when Orlando transformed into a woman or when we met various aristocrats and dignitaries etc, but nothing significant changed aesthetically. 

Read: Theatre review: IRL, Roundhouse Theatre, Brisbane

Antipodes has been developing this project for the last few years and this considerably captivating production certainly has the potential for a future life. I certainly hope this isn’t the last we see of Orlando; with a bit more tweaking and finesse this show, like its protagonist, could live on for many years to come.

Adapted from the novel by Virginia Woolf

Director: Margot Fenley

Dramaturg: Maude Davey
Music and Lyrics: Rachel Lewindon
Book and Lyrics: Willow Sizer in collaboration with the cast
Cast: Marty Alix, Louie Dalzell, Manali Datar and Kikki Temple

Orlando was performed from 2-11 November 2023.

Reuben Liversidge is based in Melbourne. He has trained in music theatre at the VCA, film and theatre at LaTrobe University, and currently works as Head Talent Agent for the Talent Company of Australia.