Back in 1999, Zygmunt Bauman told us that we were living in ‘liquid modernity’ where certain institutions, boundaries, and social pressures are receding or dying out. He marked a new time, that of fluidity, displacement, constant instability and uncertainty of our identities and life paths. British director and feminist Katie Mitchell, who has long declared exploration of women’s lives in contemporary society her goals as an artist and theatre maker, in her new production in Berlin focuses on one key feature of such fluidity, using perhaps the most appropriate prose material for this purpose, Virginia Woolf’s 20th century novel Orlando.
Gender games: British theatre director Katie Mitchell and her “Orlando” at Berlin’s Schaubühne
Gender games: British theatre director Katie Mitchell and her “Orlando” at Berlin’s Schaubühne
‘Orlando’, published in 1928, is a pseudo-biographical modernist novel with elements of social satire that describes the life of the nobleman Orlando who is travelling both in time (350 years of human history), and between genders – in the first part of the novel he is a man, in the second – a woman. Mitchell has already approached Woolf’s prose by staging her most difficult novel to stage, ‘The Waves’ (2008, Royal National Theatre), with this prose consisting of monologues, alternating points of view and conscience streams of several characters. Mitchell has mentioned in her interviews that she was interested in conveying the thoughts of a person and the thinking process on stage so that the audience could actually see what is going on in characters’ minds
This time she also aims at the impossible – she wants to analyse and dissect gender fluidity, and through showing us that gender is only a frame she makes us change our own mental outlook. It seems that the most important task of Katie Mitchell in her ‘Orlando’ was to show how gender perceptions are constructed in our heads under the influence of social norms, and how easy it is to break or question them through exposing their instability, artificialness and conventionality. As I left the performance of ‘Orlando’ and boarded the bus on Kurfürstendamm, I looked at the driver and asked myself if he really was a man, or did I just think he was? Mitchell’s production reveals that things we wear and other attributes of gender, including physical ones, are, in fact, only projections we make under the pressure of society that can be dislocated and turned upside down. And this is exactly what Mitchell does – she skillfully, playfully, through creating a complex dance of cameras that record and project the proceedings, through building different interconnected places of action on stage and making her actors inhabit them, makes such an experiment on ourselves and indeed it works.
The text for ‘Orlando’ is not just Woolf’s novel in a staged version, but rather an original script of the English playwright Alice Birch, written on the basis of the novel and translated into German by Brigitte Walitzeck. Mitchell has been collaborating with Birch for a long time, and their work has proved very fruitful (Anatomy of a Suicide, 2017, Royal Court) and succeded in exploring female psyche. This time Birch’s text looks like a film script on page (interior and exterior for indoor and outdoor scenes, deliberate montage of what the audience sees, conscious inclusion of projections and screens spelled out in the text) – it seems that the author wrote her version of Orlando especially for this production and taking into account all the peculiarities of Mitchell’s work.
In the script and in Mitchell’s production there is another key figure besides the title character – the figure of the narrator (Kathleen Golich). There is a separate booth for her situated in the upper right corner of the stage. It is at this level (above the stage) that pre-recorded projections are also made, showing Orlando or the actress Jenny Koenig (separate from her character) in beautiful parks or elsewhere outdoors ((video by Ingi Beck and Ellie Thompson). Everything else is filmed during the performance by three actors (Nadja Kruger, Sebastian Pircher and Stefan Kessissoglou) who act as cameramen. In Mitchell’s performance, we are led to deconstruct the conventionality of any processes that are played out before us, including the plot of the script/performance itself. A similar technique was used in Arianna Mnouchkine ‘‘Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir’ (2011), where the actors revealed to us how they play people sailing on a ship and filming a silent black and white movie, which was also shown to us as a work in progress. Here we also see both the preparation for the process and the process of acting on stage itself, which itself is a construction of certain representations of gender in particular situations taken from Woolf’s novel. The actors rapidly change clothes behind a partition that conventionally marks out a frame (or multiple frames) where the action takes place. Sometimes stage assistants help them change right there on stage.
Each actor or actress plays five to eight roles in the performance. Usually men (the poet Nick Green, for example) are played by women (Caroline Haupt), and vice versa. It is often hard to recognize them and follow their trans-dressing games, as the pace of the play is fast, and the director makes us follow the cross-dressing and gender reincarnations of the main character – Orlando – too closely. This role is played by actress Jenny Koenig, who is fearless in her ability to be ugly, silly, naive and funny, as well as to appear before us first as a young and naive conqueror of women’s hearts and later as an object of sexual desire – at different periods of her life.
Woolf’’s novel is satirical, playful, postmodern, and the term “fluidity” is definitely part of the author’s concept. Mitchell manages to unravel this game and bring it to a rapid and fully calibrated (to every millisecond) phantasmagoria of disguises and reincarnations. Even the writing of a letter is deconstructed before our eyes – Orlando is filmed separately, bent over the paper, and yet we see a separate hand of another actor writing verses also filmed and projected on the screen, and then we see a final result – a projection of a beautifully written letter. Birch’s version updates Woolf’s novel and includes a modern aircraft (Orlando takes it to return from Istanbul to England). On stage we see a constructed ‘plane’, with just three chairs and an illuminator that the camera captures. Orlando’s actual sex (with both men and women) is also filmed gracefully and funnily, always with things not actually seen but imagined, and usually with us seeing that this is just a game, an enactment of sex from the actors. The game resurfaces here and now, as In the end we see Jenny Koenig lying on some summer meadow, being just a modern girl reading a book (Carroll’s Alice, who dreamed it all?), and it turns the whole plot that we saw into one big game where we do not know if it was just a dream or not.
What is this complex game of gender changes and of stage reality deconstructed in front of us? What is it about – this story where Mitchell’s Orlando/Kenig promptly puts on her red moustache, wig, and pants, and then takes them off in the second part? What are these men played by women, and women played by women, and men played by men, and women played by women, about? These multiple characters, social masks, clever conversations in French (Sasha, played by Alessa Llinares), and sex in which only parts of human bodies are seen on camera (Ilknur Bahadir, playing Queen Elizabeth, is a skilled seductress here). Is it about sexual inequality and unfairness? Is it about women being conquered by men (Orlando’s conquests are spelled out in the text in a montage, and are shown as a messy funny montage on state, where Koenig doesn’t even have time to get dressed), and women becoming in turn sexualized objects? That would be too easy. Perhaps this show is about the fact that any desire, any lustful image of another (man or woman), any idea we have of who is in front of us – a man or a woman – is essentially a construct.
A construct created by whom? By us? By the narrator? By the director or playwright or the novelist Virginia Woolf? Incidentally, the narrator sometimes confesses to us during the show how difficult it is to describe Orlando’s emotions, or his love of nature, or his poetry, or his attractiveness and age. The attempt at labelling is debunked here too – the author (writer, director, actor, any other artist) makes futile attempts to name, describe, articulate. Everyone is free to perceive this final, seemingly rigid and verified, but self-subverting text, montage, movie or performance in different ways. By trying to define what we just saw we are simply making yet another attempt to label this liquid modernity and human beings within it. By the way, one of Mitchell’s earlier shows at the National theatre was based on Martin Crimp’s play “Attempts at her life” and there we saw different visions of one woman. Mitchell is still interested in how these attempts at defining a human being are made and she is still convinced it is impossible to pinpoint an identity. We are free to try to see the world in a certain way, but we need to remember that even the most precise notions of humanity and identity are contingent, and might fall apart the next moment. Go and see ‘Orlando’ at the Schaubühne and you will know how it feels.