• Jacqueline McKenzie stars in the Sydney Theatre Company production of Orlando. (James Green)Source: James Green
Jacqueline McKenzie stars as the immortal hero unbound by gender in the stage adaptation of Virginia Woolf's novel, Orlando. We spoke to director Sarah Goodes about the story's enduring themes.
Drew Sheldrick

13 Nov 2015 - 1:18 PM  UPDATED 13 Nov 2015 - 1:29 PM

It seems a little too pointedly literal to describe a text with an immortal hero as “timeless”, but it’s an adjective many have used to describe Virginia Woolf’s Orlando in the decades following its 1928 release.

Since Woolf published the satirical biography – described as the "world's longest love letter" to poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West, with whom she had a brief affair – it’s evolved into an acclaimed film by English director Sally Potter and now a stage production written by American playwright Sarah Ruhl.

Indeed, Tilda Swinton (who starred as the title character in Potter’s 1992 film) has written extensively about the novel’s ability to transform with each new reading.

Whereas Woolf’s original was widely credited for its feminist themes, Potter imbued the story with a deliberate camp, casting queer icons like Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth and Jimmy Somerville as an angel, which spoke to a reinvigorated gay movement at the time.

The Orlando stage production is likely to speak to people in additional ways; its tale of an English nobleman who casually changes sex from male-to-female overnight no doubt registering differently with audiences now familiar with an increasingly visible transgender community.

"We really just wanted to celebrate the life of this person, and whether they were male or female was irrelevant."

The director of the Australian premiere production of Orlando, Sarah Goodes, agrees that many will see the story through that particular lense, but believes Woolf’s story anchors itself in broader themes.

“Our approach to [the play] was very much that Virginia believed that creativity is androgynous. What she wanted to do was capture the spirit of the person, and the spirit of a person is often independent of sex,” Goodes told SBS.

“We really just wanted to celebrate the life of this person, and whether they were male or female was irrelevant. We just wanted to focus on their spirit. It’s who Orlando loves that defines her.”

Goodes said the creative team behind the show had plenty of discussion about whether Orlando’s change of gender would centre the production, but came to the decision that it shouldn’t be its focus.

“I really feel the core of the arguments surrounding transgender issues is that you can be both [sexes]. I have children and both of them have male and female energies to them, it’s just that society’s going to force them to really commit to one,” she said.

“I think it’s a really exciting idea that in the future that’s going to be a lot more flexible and that people are looking at it more as a 'spirit' thing than a 'who you sleep' with thing. That’s what we’re trying to celebrate.”

Supported by a male chorus, Jacqueline McKenzie stars as Orlando in the Sydney Theatre Company production, following recent performances on stage in The Present and Children of the Sun.

“She’s like a tornado in the rehearsal room. I’ve always loved her and her work, but I had no idea of just how highly skilled she is. She’s one of our great actors in Australia,” Goodes said.

“On top of that skill she’s also incredibly adventurous and playful. She’s got the spirit of a 16-year-old and I know I, and the other actors, have found it a joy to be around.”

The chorus take on characters of both sexes throughout the performance, adding to its gender fluid nature. Goodes said she mostly tried to avoid going too camp, but that proved somewhat difficult with stage veteran John Gaden playing the role of Queen Elizabeth - similar to Potter's use of Crisp.

"We tried to pull back on the camp a little, but you put John Gaden in an enormorous pink dress and, you know, call it what you want."

Orlando premieres at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House tonight and runs until December 19.