In March, your reviewer was going through some shit. I was caught between coming to terms with a continuously evolving relationship to my own gender, and increasingly forced to come to terms with the impacts my disabilities were having on my day-to-day life. For me, SUDS’ production of Orlando, one of the last before the Cellar was closed as a result of the pandemic, was a joy and a revelation.
Using Sarah Ruhl’s recent adaptation as a starting point, the cast and crew has been guided expertly by director Sean Landis to create a show so much more than its initial source material.
A cast of five in the original production is expanded to eight, the text’s more gender essentialist passages have been cut, or carefully rewritten, and the original staging’s sterile pomp and bombast, so typical of mainstage theatre, is replaced with colour, choreographed movement sequences, an amazing original score for string quartet and piano written by Sam Cheng and performed live, and an incredibly impressive centrepiece (a colossal tree constructed by the crew that extended up to the Cellar’s ceiling).
The most impressive part of the show, however, is the urgency, passion, and love that every cast and crew member clearly brought to its creation. It is one thing to do a once over of a text, sensitivity guide in hand, in an attempt to render a problematic show “unproblematic”. SUDS’ Orlando proves that the true strength of student theatre lies in the energy, immediacy, and unabashedly high stakes, politically minded, “we don’t give a fuck what mainstream audiences want, piss off, we’re making the show our community wants us to make” attitude that young people are so adept at bringing to everything they do.
The question of Orlando’s gender, the subject of so many tortured articles in literary criticism, is consequently taken as completely obvious. Or rather, not. We don’t know. Orlando’s changing relationship with gender over the course of the play is not a riddle to be solved. It is a process of self-discovery that every trans person confronted with the daunting precipice presented by the process of coming out, leaping off, only to realise that, maybe, gender is a bit more complicated than that, can recognise. Exploration of one’s gender is often difficult, not just at the initial point of outing yourself as trans, but long afterwards. There is an imperative for trans people to be absolutely certain about their identities at the moment of coming out, as a shield against the deluge of criticism levelled at us. “You’re confused.” Yeah, and your virulent transphobia is not helping, Joanne. SUDS’ Orlando presents this process of exploration avnd discovery in a manner that is delicate and bold in all the right places.
The portrayal of the titular protagonist deserves special mention here. Robbie Wardaugh’s performance as Orlando was utterly magnificent. Throughout the entire play, they have the unenviable task of simultaneously portraying all of Orlando’s doubts, confusions, anxieties, and gender transgressions, while simultaneously being the audience’s main point of continuity in a play that spans several countries and around 450 years. They not only succeed, they thrive. I was mesmerised from beginning to end.
In a play so tied to self-discovery, a production that is so conscious of embodiment, and a review in the disability collective’s autonomous edition of Honi Soit, special mention should also be made of the casting of Robin Eames, a wheelchair user, in the production. If authentic representation of disabled people on stage is always a breath of fresh air (and it is), they were a tornado. It was so clear to everyone watching how at ease they were on stage, gliding regally as the Queen in one moment, leading a raucous carnival dance in the next. In a production for which movement and choreography was so integral, Eames never seemed out of place. The entire team clearly spent a lot of time, not thinking about how to awkwardly insert a wheelchair user into a production already fully-formed in their minds, but to collaboratively devise a show from which Eames’ performance was inextricable from the show itself. Disabled embodiment is truly beautiful, and makes for incredible viewing. It cannot be replicated by abled actors, no matter how committed to the method they may be.
The rest of the cast were wonderful. This show, absent any of its parts, could not have been as stunning a production as it was. The audience was variously brought to tears by Madeleine Gandhi’s scorned lover of Orlando, Isabelle Laxamana’s swaggering ship captain, Rachel Seeto’s very forward Arch-Duchess (and later Arch-Duke), and Isla Mowbray’s gremlin-servant Grimsditch. Sam Martin made a very captivating Sasha, and Max Cattana’s Shelmerdine was delightful; simultaneously emotional, vacant, incredibly serious and headstrong.
SUDS’ Orlando was magnificent. I saw it three times during its run, and wish I had gone again. It represents everything that student theatre, and theatre in general, should aspire to be.