Melbourne Festival: Orlando ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Melbourne Festival: Orlando

Melbourne Festival Diary #4

Some notes on Orlando

White. No colour, every colour; plenty and absence at once. The empty page awaiting inscription, the page which may be shredded or burned. The colour of milk, the colour of semen, the colour of fertility. The imaginary of European Empire, the sterile fictions of race, purity, virginity. The hymeneal bride, the deuil blanc of mediaeval mourning. The colour of deep freeze, of immobility, of the Great Frosts of Elizabethan London, when the river Thames was sheeted with ice eleven inches thick. Arsenic. The nuclear heart of a star, the colour of absolute cold. The colour of The Rabble's Orlando.

Mary Helen Sassman and Dana Miltins in Orlando. Photo: Sarah Walker

In Kate Davis's design, the stage is a shallow pool of white liquid, enclosed above by a low ceiling outlined by lights, and backstage by a huge mirror. Before the actors appear, it is absolutely still: it seems a solid white floor, a sheet of ice. As the actors wade ankle-deep through the liquid (milk? semen? both? neither?), the surface becomes a chaos of ripples, their white costumes become sodden. It is impure, this white.

The imagined shade of absolute clarity. The white-out of a snowstorm, in which every thing is obscured.


It's certainly been an interesting, if not especially edifying, fortnight for women. A popular resurgence in feminism, which in Australia has remained largely beneath the radar, collided head-on with the received wisdom of mainstream political commentary.  Julia Gillard's Question Time speech in which, turning on a rhetorical sixpence, she took Tony Abbott's hypocritical borrowing of feminist feathers and shoved them so far down his throat that he choked, became the focal point of a blizzard of debate. Suddenly sexism and misogyny were the words of the moment. Feminism? Not so much.

On one side, a phalanx of mostly - but not exclusively - male pundits claim that, in calling out the misogynist attacks that have attended her leadership of the country, Gillard herself is being sexist: playing the "gender card", she is taking unfair advantage of her sex to wrongfoot the leader of the Opposition. In other words, the real victim of Tony Abbott's sexism is... Tony Abbott. On the other, the uncritical rarara for Gillard as feminist hero ignores her policies: the implications, for instance, of her decision - on the same day that she made her viral speech - to join forces with the Opposition to vote in significant cuts to the income of sole parents, a decision which disproportionately affects women. Feminist? How much?

Of course there has been insightful comment, but most of the ensuing discussion left me depressed and bored. A snowstorm indeed, in which the genuine grievances of women were whited out by a trivialising rhetoric that stands complacently on the assumption that women are a "minority".  Covertly or overtly, the rational desire of women to be treated as human beings is characterised as  "female unreasonableness": worse, serious issues of public policy - abortion rights, for example - somehow became equated with mentioning mussels in public. The misogyny in Australian political debate - and its first cousin, homophobia - bared its teeth, calling on every possible hypocrisy to conceal its vicious defence of its own privilege. It's all so familiar. It's all so deadening.

And then you go and see a show like Orlando. It's not that a work like this makes everything better; it manifestly can't. It's not that it teaches you anything that you don't know; it doesn't. It's that it is something. An uninhibited howl of laughter. A scream of grief. A forthright act of unshamed beauty. Female desire in all its violence, perversity and monotony, its repetitive assault on the self, its redemption, its dolour, its breath-taking, liberating lust for life. Orlando is, most of all, a work of theatre: a performance that explodes, with the white-hot fission of its full meaning, into the present moment.

I haven't read Virginia Woolf's Orlando since my early 20s, and have only the vaguest memory of the text. I wondered whether to re-read it after seeing The Rabble's show, but decided that I'd rather simply respond to the show: this so clearly isn't an adaptation of the novel, however much it riffs from Woolf. The Rabble steals Orlando's central conceits - the ageless lover of Elizabeth I who lives through several centuries, changing into a woman along the way - and its characters: Orlando (Dana Miltins), and her lovers Nicholas Greene (Syd Brisbane) and Sasha (Mary-Helen Sassman). These become the occasion for a new work of theatre.

The Rabble's production, created by Emma Valente and Kate Davis, constructs a collage of words and performance and sound. The text includes passages from Orlando and The Waves, original poems (mostly by Emma Valente), writings from Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, Elizabeth I, a translation of Sappho by the Elizabethan poet Ambrose Phillips. But for all its textual richness, this performance is generated as much by gesture, sound and visual cues as it is by language. The novel is literally a pre-text for three extraordinary performances.

Syd Brisbane in Orlando. Photo: Sarah Walker

There are long silences, longueurs stretched almost to the point of breaking - most cheekily when Orlando, newly translated into the female, waits as a kettle boils for a cup of tea. There are sudden, overwhelming eruptions of sound: heavy metal music, piano solos, the unbearably amplified and repeated shattering of glass, always the sound of water. There are sumptuous visual plays of light, as when Orlando, lying corpse-like in a sea of milk, dissolves into an image of the Milky Way.

There is no easily discerned dramaturgical shape, no gradual rise of tension to the expected orgasmic climax: in fact, it's only in the final moment of the performance that its intentions become clear. Theatrical tension is wound up, climaxes and retreats, again and again: desire is met, sated, withdrawn, over-stimulated to the point of irritation, delicately teased to reawakening. You could perhaps evolve a theory of how feminine sexual response is expressed as dramatic energy in Orlando, in direct argument with the singular dramatic release of a masculine theatre. It's very tempting, in fact, to think along those lines. But it would likely be dodgy, and could diminish and enclose much of what is interesting here. The Rabble are working in recognisable traditions of avant garde theatre, and their challenge is as much towards the commodification of meaning as it is to gendered expectations of form or content.

Nevertheless, in the centre of Orlando is the question of gender.

Male has always been the default neutral gender of human. It remains radical for women to claim this default status: woman is a special category of (hu)mankind, confined and defined by her body. This is why women are thought of as a "minority" in patriarchal society, despite the fact that women slightly outnumber men: in the imaginative economy of gender, a woman can never represent the universal. She can never simply be a person: she is always, whatever she does, a cunt with a person attached. If she steps up to claim her personhood, she is expected to speak for women. It is permissible - nay, it is imperative! - for any prominent woman to symbolise all women; in this way, as is the case with "minority" races in a white-dominated culture, she is denied the ability to symbolise all people. Personhood - the ability to universalise humanity in a particular individuality - is withdrawn from her. A man can be an individual man, since he can also be a neutral symbol of humanity, speaking of and for all of us. A woman is never a neutral person. She is a woman.

For the representative artist, this is truly a horned dilemma. And this crisis of representation spawns the man who is a woman who is the multiply gendered, multiply conditioned, historicised, atemporal self, all at once. This is where Orlando comes in.

As it were.


Obscenity can be sexist, but it is not in and of itself sexist. It might just be sex. It might just be absurd.

I want the penis when I am waiting
When I am waiting now I am thinking of the penis
I am thinking of the penis riding a horse
When I am cold I am hoping the penis will come
The penis will make me warm
The penis makes me penis
I am penis
Penis penis
Penis me please penis
Penis please penis my penis
Penis the penis in the penis penis
Penis put penis penis in my penis penis

It might allude to the Galenian idea that the vagina is an inverted penis: inversion, perversion, transexual, transgressive: Orlando. It might be Dada soundpoem nonsense sense. It might be a straightforwardly joyous expression of sexual desire. It might, in the mouth of Mary-Helen Sassman, acquire an outrageous Russian accent. She might be eating an apple at the time. I might not have been able to stop laughing.


But these complexities - the breakages enacted for us, the confusions and violences and comedies of desire - condition a longing that is nothing to do with gender. All these selves, all these costumes, all these histories and literatures, are the veils which obscure ourselves from ourselves. The great beauty of Woolf's writing is given its due in the long final monologue, in which Miltins, abject, exhausted, soaked, in the androgynous costume of a dunce, arrives in a place where identity fails, where there are no selves, no names: only the body, breathing and speaking; only the joyous and painful details of life, its mundanity, its terrifying beauty. It is now, as we are watching. Suddenly we know it is now

Orlando, created by Emma Valente and Kate Davis, direction and lighting design by Emma Valente, design by Kate Davis. With Syd Brisbane, Dana Miltins and Mary Helen Sassman. Helium season at the Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne Festival, until October 27.

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