Shapeshifting première for our changing times

Spanning 400 years and changes of costume and gender, Orlando is an emblem of transformation


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Transformation is at the heart of everything going on at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/11/2021 (376 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Transformation is at the heart of everything going on at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced it to modify almost every aspect of how it makes theatre, a tradition that goes back to when John Hirsch and Tom Hendry founded the company in 1958.

Masks are everyday wear, and not just for denoting the difference between comedy and tragedy. Hand sanitizer is the new makeup.

Em Siobhan McCourt (centre) plays the title character in Orlando, which opens the 2021-22 season at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Musicals, a key genre in theatre, are potential super-spreader events.

So it is fitting that a play about transformation, Orlando, kicks off Royal MTC’s 2021-22 season when it opens Thursday at 7:30 p.m., and brings one of Canada’s largest theatre companies out of 626 days of viral darkness.

“I feel like I’ve been in first gear for two and a half years,” says Kelly Thornton, who took over as the company’s artistic director in June 2019.

“I intentionally programmed Orlando as a way for audiences to return to theatre and to see the delights of theatre. Orlando is intentionally there as a gift to the audience to come back to the theatre and experience the kind of breathtaking, surprising acts of imagination we can create on the stage.

“This is such an overtly theatrical show about transformation and the set is about transformation. That was very intentional, but it’s been a huge challenge because you want to make it as exciting and surprising as it could possibly be.”

Orlando is Sarah Ruhl’s stage adaptation of the Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando: A Biography. Woolf’s book was inspired by her lover, fellow author Vita Sackville-West, and is about a poet’s adventures from the Elizabethan Age in the 1500s all the way to the Jazz Age in the 1920s, with the poet Orlando transforming in costume and gender to suit the times.

Woolf’s story is considered a classic in feminist literature, so the theatrical version is a great place for Thornton to begin her directorial tenure at Royal MTC. She was the artistic director of the Nightwood Theatre in Toronto, which specializes in feminist theatre, prior to taking on the same post in Winnipeg in June 2019.

”(Orlando) embarks on a journey of over 400 years, searching for his authentic self, and changes genders in the middle of it all and arrives as a woman, trapped in the social construct of what a woman is,” Thornton says.

It all wasn’t supposed to be this way. The initial plan, many long acts ago, was for Thornton to make her Royal MTC directorial entrance with The Sound of Music, one of the classics of the stage.

As Orlando, Em Siobhan McCourt changes costume and gender through the arc of the play adapted by Sarah Ruhl from Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Orlando may be without the grand Rodgers and Hammerstein songs, but it is with the transformed times we live.

“It wasn’t on the playbill that got cancelled but I feel like we have been through such a journey through the pandemic that this concept of transformation was very inspiring to me,” she says.

“We all need to share stories of the dark but to feel joy and laugh together, and Orlando is very very funny… The play is silly, the play is profound. It’s a real adventure story.

“It asks us to expand our minds beyond the binaries, beyond the construct of time. It’s a very 21st-century look.”

A chorus of four characters, played by Simon Bracken, Ivy Charles, Breton Lalama and Simon Miron, provides narration, asides and even some of the scenery during the play while bringing many of Woolf’s words to the stage.

“Ruhl says nobody can say it as well as Virginia Woolf, so I’ve used a lot of Woolf’s text in this adaptation,” Thornton says. “They cheer Orlando but they are removed from Orlando sometimes and they play all the characters in Orlando’s life.”

Em Siobhan McCourt plays Orlando a character transformed with interactions with Queen Elizabeth I, and later by a love interest, Sasha, portrayed by Sophie Smith-Dostmohamed.

Putting together Orlando has had greater meaning for many in the cast, whether it’s been the absence of theatre for all these past months or the play’s inclusive nature. Some members of the cast and crew, including McCourt, live beyond traditional gender norms.

Simon Miron, a francophone Métis actor from Winnipeg who plays Chorus No. 1, as well as Queen Elizabeth I, is two-spirited.

‘We have been through such a journey through the pandemic that this concept of transformation was very inspiring to me,’ says director Kelly Thornton (right), speaking to Em Siobhan McCourt, during a technical rehearsal for Orlando. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

“From the beginning, this process has been a lot more personal than many of the other productions I’ve worked with in the past,” Miron says. “There have been a lot of very touching and very personal stories that have been shared in the rehearsal hall that have really created an intimate, safe, supportive and understanding space.

“In general, we have that most of the time, but this is sort of at a new level I feel. It’s allowed us to take a few more risks and to allow us to really find ourselves in this world, in our characters, in this play, which you rarely find the time to do that.”

Woolf’s novel was turned into a film in 1992 starring Tilda Swinton in the title role. It’s one Thornton enjoyed but she’s avoided watching Vita & Virginia, a 2018 drama on Netflix with Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki portraying the romance between Sackville-West and Woolf.

“I think Virginia and Vita had very fascinating lives and the alchemy of the two of them coming together was really impactful for both of them,” Thornton says. “Vita really solidified Virginia as a writer… and Virginia really inspired Vita as well.”

Twitter: @AlanDSmall

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Alan Small

Alan Small

Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.

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