Orlando’s gender-bender journey in step with the times

31 March 2023

WAAPA’s students deliver a humour-infused and relevant theatrical interpretation of Virginia Woolf’s classic novel Orlando, writes Claire Trolio.

Orlando, WAAPA 3rd Year Performance Making students
Enright Studio, 30 March 2023

Last year I saw a couple of shows that left me wondering about the producers’ choice to remount old works, without any criticism or consideration of a modern context.

It got me thinking about what expectations are fair to place on artists and how much progress I can expect as a viewer.

I’d been disappointed because I felt that these performances upheld, celebrated or excused outdated and dangerous ideas of gender and sexuality in a contemporary world.

Then comes along Orlando.

Sarah Ruhl’s 2010 theatrical adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel is performed in 2023 by the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts’ (WAAPA) third year Performance Making students, who show us exactly how it can be done.

You see Orlando – the novel – is still so insightful today: a critique on a binary model of gender, of heteronormativity and gender-based inequality. Though women can be landholders now, it’s frightening how otherwise relevant this almost-century-old novel is today.

Orlando begins in the Elizabethan era where the titular character is a 16 year old boy with desires to become a famous poet. The tale continues through centuries documenting his pursuits of love and lust, and writing too.

During this period, Orlando’s gender morphs from male to female while they remain much unchanged otherwise, in terms of both the age they appear and their attitudes. The novel ends in 1928, when it was published, while Ruhl’s theatrical version continues into the 21st century. Woolf’s fearless prose and her spark shines through the novel and this adaptation.

The novel is brilliant, although not perfect. As Woolf writes in Orlando, when looking back on the past we must remember that “their morals were not ours … everything was different.” She’s acutely aware of social change, hopeful for it even, in the text itself.

WAAPA’s production of ‘Orlando’ is right on the pulse of contemporary concerns. Photo: Stephen Heath Photography

So Ruhl’s adaptation provides a more modern context, affording contemporary values while retaining Woolf’s wit and canny prose.

And now, director Younghee Park, WAAPA visiting artist, gives a fresh and punchy take on this work, complete with live hip hop and melodic movement through a studio-style stage.

Bronte Frances takes the role of Orlando, playing them through their years – and genders – with a consistent harmony and naivety. They achieve a good chunk of the action on rollerskates, alongside Atira Shack as Orlando’s love interest Sasha. Both Shack and Frances remain undistracted by their wheels, delivering charged performances.

Parker Horne offers up The Queen with bags of humour balanced with a pinch of vulnerability. In fact, comedy is a massive part of Orlando, and the whole cast ensures it’s delivered.

With an audience set up on two adjacent sides of the stage, the chorus does well to maintain audience engagement when the action is elsewhere. Despite being perched in a corner next to an over-active smoke machine, there were only a handful of times when I couldn’t hear the dialogue and always felt involved in the action.

Robust live music is provided by Harrison Lorenz-Daniel, Alicia Selkirk, Harper Nguyen and Adam Snyman. Throughout the piece, Nguyen and Snyman’s hip hop verse provides an enjoyable change of pace and narrative delivery.

Costume designer Elisa Von Perger has created excellent pieces. Compounding the fluid temporality of the text, the costumes combine ruffs and corsets with flashes of hot pink, vinyl and organza. They borrow from various historical periods with elements of DIY and drag aesthetic for a fun and well-considered visual that’s never over-done.

Park’s Orlando is right on the pulse of contemporary concerns, and with it, WAAPA addresses its students and its audience with respect. Right on.

Orlando continues until 5 April 2023.

Pictured: Parker Horne as The Queen in WAAPA’s production of Orlando. Photo: Stephen Heath Photography

Like what you're reading? Support Seesaw.

Author —
Claire Trolio

Claire Trolio completed a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) and a Bachelor of Laws (Hons) at UWA. She writes about Western Australia for various digital and print media and owns a shop with her sister. For her, the spider swing is the ultimate in playground fun.

Past Articles

  • Gentle touch guides lunar landing 

    Balancing weight with whimsy, this children’s theatre work strikes the right chord for its target audience, writes Claire Trolio.

  • Next-gen theatre makers impress

    From the fresh and funny to the weird and wonderful, WAAPA’s Performance Making students bring fresh, incisive work at full tilt, writes Claire Trolio.

Read Next

  • Just what the doctor ordered

    Just what the doctor ordered

    29 September 2023

    Dr AudiYO uses vocal gymnastics to take the audience on a fun adventure. Junior reviewers Jackson and Chloe Davis are happy to take this prescription. 

    Reading time • 3 minutesTheatre
  • Seadragon weaves magic spell

    Seadragon weaves magic spell

    28 September 2023

    The Magical Weedy Seadragon enchants junior reviewer Isabel Greentree with a winning blend of story, song and humour.   

    Reading time • 4 minutesMulti-arts
  • Lifting the weight of the world

    Lifting the weight of the world

    28 September 2023

    Junior reviewers Jackson and Chloe Davis are taken on a thoughtful and funny journey to the Moon with one overwhelmed girl.

    Reading time • 4 minutesTheatre

Cleaver Street Studio

Cleaver Street Studio


Cleaver Street Studio