The Magdalen College Garden Play: Orlando

a photograph of Wally McCabe (Who played Orlando) and Anna McMullan (ensemble/ Sasha) on stage in the president's garden. Orlando lounges rouguishly in a chair, while Anna (as Woolf/Ensemble) writes in a large book at a writing desk. It is dusk, and the garden is suffused with a rosy glow The flowers are picked up by the light.

10 June 2024

This year, the Magdalen Players performed a play adapted by Magdalen alumnus Neil Bartlett: Orlando, which was originally a novel by Virginia Woolf. The play was first performed at the Garrick Theatre in 2022 to much critical acclaim, starring Emma Corrin in the titular role. It was performed again by the Magdalen Players in Fourth Week, in the President’s Garden, to an audience including the playwright himself.

In the court of Queen Elizabeth I, the young nobleman Orlando begins his search for identity. ‘Who am I?’ he asks, ‘When am I?’ Travelling through time and place, he is catapulted into the court of King James, falls in love with a Russian princess, witnesses London freeze over, and wakes up under the blazing sun of Constantinople transformed into a young woman. She continues her journey up to the present day in search of the answer to the question that began the whole thing: “Who am I?”

This production, produced by Eve Wilsmore, and directed by Phoenix Barnett and Raphael da Silva, sparkled in the President’s Garden. Playing out as the sun slipped behind the walls; whilst day slipped into night, Orlando underwent their transformation.

Following the performance, we were treated to a Q&A with the playwright himself in the President’s Lodgings, hosted by the producer, directors, and actor Wally McCabe, who played Orlando.

A photograph of Neil Bartlett in 1980/ His hair is punky, with shaved sections, and wispy curls falling down. He wears a patterend jumper over a white t-shirt, and his hand is on his head.
Neil Bartlett in 1980
 A black and white portrait of Bartlett now. He looks directly into the camera, and is lit very strongly from the left.
Neil Bartlett Now
A book cover with a photograph of Emma Corrin, the original actor of Orlando in costume. They have one large puffed sleeve, covered on one side with a black jacket. The background is the large house mentioned in the text. The text on to cover reads: "Orlando. From the Novel by Virginia Woold, Adapted by Neil Bartlett"
The Cover of the Play Text of Neil Bartlett’s Orland

It was a truly lovely evening, watching the play unfold in the beautiful setting of the President’s Garden. For those who missed the Q&A, here are some of the questions they asked Neil, and what he said:

Q: How is it being back at College, and did you enjoy the play?

Neil: It’s always extraordinary to hear the words spoken for a second time by a company completely unlike the company who I first saw play it. So, I feel like I’ve seen the play for the first time, and that’s very exciting and very pleasurable.

I haven’t been back to College since 1979, so there’s the added Proustian layer… I was sitting there when Orlando was saying “how old am I?” I was thinking the same thing… How old am I? I lived in the Corner on the first floor of the Longwall Quad, and I felt that that person was watching the show, so I’ve been feeling 18 and 65 all at the same time.

Q: As a playwright, you’ve worked on original scripts as well as adaptations. How does the process of adaptation change your writing?

Neil: It’s much quicker. My novels can take 7, 8, 9 years – Orlando took three and a half weeks to the first version of the script, and then there were rewrites in rehearsals. I never adapt anything unless I love it. And I never adapt anything unless I’ve got the trick. Every story worth telling has a central trick and a central impossibility. For example, if you’re going to do The Picture of Dorian Gray you have to know how you’re going to do the picture. With Orlando I had to get to, very quickly, the main engines of how I’ve done it. The idea that all the words would be somebody else – the idea rippling through the script ‘Try words’, Woolf had a very extraordinary relationship to words which I think is to do with her bipolarity where they were both her friends and her enemies, and she could pick them up and put them down very quickly. So, one of the first things I decided is that there wouldn’t be any bits by me in the script – except for the bits about her death, like ‘dead with stones in her pockets,’ that’s me. But I’ve borrowed from Hamlet, from Romeo and Juliet, from John Webster, Jane Shore by Nicholas Rowe, and Some Like it Hot.

Q: Where was ‘work your oranges girlfriend’ from?

Neil: (A long pause…) Okay, that’s me. (The audience laughs.)

Then there was the idea that Virginia would play everyone except Orlando. So you’ve got two kinds of chameleon – Orlando who never changes but never stays the same, and Woolf who is always herself but fractures into different characters. So, those ideas, that was day one. I get the big ideas down and then the process of adaptation is brutally simple: get a copy of the book, a highlighter, and highlight all the great bits and put them in order. That’s it.

Q: Do you think there’s something about theatre in particular that brings more art to a story like Orlando or enhances it in a way that film wouldn’t?

Neil: No. I think Orlando is a fantastic story and there’s a whole category of English novels that have escaped being novels and taken on a life of their own. You don’t need to have even read The Picture of Dorian Gray to know what ‘she’s got a picture in the attic’ means, and Orlando is on the way to being one of those kinds of novels. One of the great sentences of English literature is ‘He was a woman’. Quite soon, I think, even if you’ve never read the book, you’re going to know about that moment. Because of that brilliant central narrative conceit, and that pivotal sentence ‘He was a woman’, the story is so good you can do anything with it.

For me, I think everything finds its true form in the theatre because I love theatre. But Orlando would make an amazing tapestry, a wonderful fashion collection, it would be an amazing album. It’s too good to just be… “one thing”.

Q: We really wanted to approach casting blindly – so if someone came in whom we felt embodied the character, regardless of gender, we wanted to be free to cast them. How did you approach casting?

Neil: I wanted a body diverse, class diverse, accent diverse, racially diverse cast, and I wanted the Virginias to be mostly women.

Q: Why?

Neil: Because it’s an opportunity to write 12, potentially thirteen, amazing parts for women.

Q: Do you think it’s important to have a non-binary or genderqueer Orlando because of the way Virginia Woolf chops and changes between male and female?

Neil: I think it’s amazing and very exciting that we’re in a place now, not only where it’s possible, but where that feels like almost the go-to option. But I’m looking forward to the first cis-gendered all-male Orlando perhaps in a prison, and the first all-female Orlando, and the first all non-binary Orlando. I really hope that it will be put through all of those variations. The beauty of the work is that there’s no right way to do this, only your way.

Q: What were your experiences at Oxford and Magdalen as a queer person in the 1970s?

Neil: Thank you – what a lovely place to end!

It was all a bit tricky, but I have to say I did really well. If you’d met me in my second year when I was living in Longwall Quad, I was very Siouxsie Sioux, so it was possible to find ways of being queer here from many different directions. There was a gay men’s club in town which I used to go to, I had a wonderful out gay tutor in my third year who really opened my eyes to the presence of other gay writers in the canon. Sometimes, when we tell the history of that period, we tend to tell stories of the negatives – of people who were sent down for being caught with their boyfriends and other things. But really, I was having a fantastic time. Punk had happened, gay liberation had happened, Gay’s the Word had opened, and we were all talking about radical feminism and overthrowing the patriarchy, and we were cracking on and doing just that in our daily lives. The mixture of feminism and gay liberation was absolutely crucial to my time here – but I’m very glad that it’s not the 1970s anymore.