Orlando Blooming: A dream becomes reality.

The Scotsman
29 September 2010
PITCH black. A single figure comes on stage – male, no-one could doubt his sex – and a singing female voice, accented, at times ethereally delicate, at times rasping and sexy, whispers to him, “You are in the prime of life.”

Director Cathie Boyd

The still-empty stage fills up with the sound of a port, of bustle, of marketplaces and snake charmers, and the figure begins to dance, his silhouette spreading over the white drapes behind him. Suddenly, he doesn’t seem to be alone on stage any more – but that’s because his projected silhouette has cut itself off from him, taken on a life of its own.

It happens again and again as the woman coos and hisses at him, as the music gets faster, till he’s dancing with an army of his own shadows, all repeating his movements at different times, and… “and that’s enough for just now!” says Cathie Boyd, artistic director of Cryptic (formerly Theatre Cryptic), the long-running Glasgow-based music theatre specialists.

The lights come back up, revealing the small army of technicians who have just worked this miracle, all sitting around the auditorium. The dancer is assistant director and choreographer Joshua Armstrong, standing in for actor Madeleine Worrall, the music was by Craig Armstrong and AGF, the effect I’ve just witnessed was caused by Living Canvas, an interactive real-time tracking and projection device which hasn’t ever been used in theatre before, and we’ve dropped in during “creation” (not “rehearsals”) for Cryptic’s new groundbreaking production of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando.

Perhaps the best-known incarnation of that story these days is Sally Potter’s delicate, witty 1992 film version, which made a star of Tilda Swinton in the eponymous role, a teenage nobleman at the court of Queen Elizabeth I who spends 400-plus years looking for “life and a lover”, changing sex and becoming a woman around about the 18th century. At the time, a pale-lipped Swinton waking up one morning to discover she was “exactly the same person, only a different sex” seemed strangely acceptable, chiming as it did with the anaemic, androgynous vibe of early 1990s fashion photography. Woolf herself intended her immortal androgyne as a mock-biography of lover Vita Sackville-West. “Vita was way ahead of her time,” says Boyd, whose research into the subject has clearly been thorough – she and Worrall, who will play Orlando, have spent time at Knole, Sackville-West’s ancestral manor, where much of the book is set. “You read her letters and she’s writing to Virginia that in the future there will be less visual distinction between men and women, which of course is true; Vita was living it already, you know. She used to dress up as this male character, Julian, and parade out with her female lovers on her arm.”

Boyd has been champing at the bit to create her own Orlando, for almost all of her professional life, but it wasn’t Potter’s film that inspired her.

“It was 1993, and I was in Paris. I’d booked to see (legendary American director] Robert Wilson’s Orlando, with Isabelle Huppert in it, and I watched it in French. I’m a fairly good French speaker, but even then I was completely blown away by this piece and by the language Darryl Pickney, adapting it, had chosen to use. Then it came to the Edinburgh Festival, in English, with Miranda Richardson, and this production really marked me in a massive way re. my work. The idea of creating my own version has been under my skin since then.”

Wilson’s productions are famous for both their opulence and their stark theatricality; those familiar with Cryptic’s work will see the links with Boyd’s directorial style immediately. She likes to be involved in every aspect of a production, from lighting to costuming, and Cryptic pieces are famously technical, using theatre as the space to forge a union of sound and visual, or, as their website puts it,
creating “music to be looked at, not just listened to”. Therefore, creating her own version of Orlando seems to have been as much a matter of waiting for the technology to catch up with her as getting the rights to Pickeney’s script and finding the right moment.

For a start, how, without camera trickery, do you convey a character passing through several centuries and changing sex, in a one-person play? What I witnessed in “creation”, the multiplicity of selves growing and taking on their own lives, is the tool Boyd’s Orlando needed to come to life.

“It’s all about what sort of tools you use to tell the story.” Boyd explains.

“Dr Martin Naef, who was the head of computer science at Glasgow School of Art at the time, came to me back in 2006 to demonstrate this Living Canvas technology they’d been developing. At first they were demonstrating very simply how it could be used for costume changes, that you could change onstage from a pink to a green costume. I realised you could use it to show these other selves; it had the ability to change you, onstage, as an individual. And Orlando is on a journey of self-discovery; he constantly changes, not just his sex, but his personality according to who he’s with. He’s different with Queen Elizabeth, with his Russian lover Sacha, with the Arch-Duchess who’s in love with him. When you are Orlando, when you are going through so many eras and times, how do you capture that? I went away and told Claire Moran (Cryptic’s long-time producer] about Living Canvas, and I said, ‘I think this is for Orlando.’ She practically yelled, ‘Oh thank god you’re finally going to do Orlando; you’ve been talking about Orlando ever since I’ve known you!'”

From that point four years ago, the production has developed slowly, but organically. Realising the scale of the project she was working on (the production has been funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council grant to develop the technology), Boyd understood that everything else needed to match it.

“I began to think this needs a really epic soundtrack. I mean, Orlando is epic. It’s big and it’s epic and it’s majestic. Craig Armstrong was the only choice.”

Armstrong – best known these days for his film soundtrack work on The Incredible Hulk and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, seems to have relished the challenge. He suggested bringing in a long-term collaborator, laptop artist Antye Greie, who goes by the moniker AGF, to work on the music, and she’s ended up onstage, providing vocals for Orlando’s subconscious – that half-sung, sexy whisper drifting over the dance sequence earlier is hers.

“There’s a willingness in theatre audiences, to really kind of immerse themselves in a pieces, to give it time to develop,” says Armstrong, “whereas I think in film, it can tend to be a little bit more commercial; so on this project, not only was it a pleasure to be given the room to create something abstract, but – and you don’t get this with film as often – it’s always great when the person you’re working for is really as personally excited about the project. Orlando has been bubbling around in Cathie’s head for 17 years, and that kind of enthusiasm is always a great thing – it means there’s a very strong vision behind it. She’s executing exactly what she wants, and as an artist, that’s all you can do.”

Orlando premieres at the Traverse, Edinburgh, 30 September until 2 October, and runs at Tramway, Glasgow, from 2-6 November. For more information, see www.cryptic.org.uk

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