“He – for there could be no doubt of his sex…” Has any great novel begun with such mischievous words as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928) – the very fulcrum of which is its principal character’s transformation mid-plot from man to woman?
Born into the English nobility in the late 16th Century, the young Orlando is soon called into service by Elizabeth I: “And the Queen, who knew a man when she saw one, though not, it is said, in the usual way, plotted for him a splendid ambitious career… He was to be the son of her old age; the limb of her infirmity; the oak tree on which she leant her degradation.”
Yet, years later, as Charles II’s ambassador to Constantinople, Orlando falls into a trance, “sunk in profound slumber amid bed clothes that were much tumbled.” Days pass, during which he is assumed by invading rioters to be dead. But finally, he awakens: “He stretched himself. He rose. He stood upright in complete nakedness before us, and while the trumpets pealed Truth! Truth! Truth! we have no choice left but confess – he was a woman.”
Now, almost a century after its publication, Orlando returns once more in a beguiling and powerful new stage adaptation, directed by Michael Grandage and starring Golden Globe-winner Emma Corrin (Garrick Theatre, booking until 25 February).
The novel – or “biography” as Woolf styled it – has been brilliantly reconfigured by Neil Bartlett as an exchange between Orlando and a Greek chorus of nine Virginia Woolfs (who also play other characters). The staging is sparse, its main feature being a costume-rack that enables Corrin to carry out quick changes as the action and the passage of time require. Their performance – puckish, earnest and disarmingly vulnerable by turns – is already being rewarded with standing ovations.
Just as Orlando lives for more than three hundred years without perceptibly aging, so the book itself has, through the decades, inspired a series of reimaginings and reinterpretations. Sally Potter’s stunning 1992 movie stars Tilda Swinton at her very best (and Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth); an operatic version by composer Peter Aderhold and librettist Sharon L. Joyce made its premiere at the Braunschweig State Theater in April 2016; Orlando is a lead character, a sex-changing immortal, in the graphic novel series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill; and the novel was even chosen as the theme of the 2020 Met Gala (sadly cancelled as a result of the pandemic).
So great, indeed, is Orlando’s mythic influence that its profoundly personal and particular origins are easily lost in the giddy haze of deconstruction, analysis and speculation. Nigel Nicolson, son of Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West famously described it as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature” – and there is much truth in this characterisation.
Dedicated to Vita, Orlando would certainly never have been written were it not for her affair with Virginia, and the novelist’s abiding passion. As she wrote to Vita: “it’s about you and the lust of your flesh and the lure of your mind… Also, I admit, I should like to untwine and twist again some very odd incongruous strands in you.”
Admitting that she was both “thrilled and terrified”, Vita collaborated in the illustration of the original edition, which depicts her in historical dress and draws heavily upon her family’s past and ancestral home, Knole, in Kent. Vita was heartbroken not to be able to inherit the estate and her experience is transferred to Orlando, who, returning to England as a woman, has her home (clearly based upon Knole) and assets abruptly put into Chancery.
Aside from its vertiginous artistic ambitions, the novel was also an emotional coping mechanism for Woolf. As her biographer, Hermione Lee puts it: “just at the point when Vita was turning her interest elsewhere [to Mary Campbell], Virginia recovered her for her fiction. From the end of 1927, she took control of the relationship in a new form.” (For more on this, try Sarah Gristwood, Vita & Virginia: The lives and love of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West; Love Letters: Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West; and Chanya Button’s melodramatic but watchable 2018 movie, Vita & Virginia.)
The joyful audacity of Orlando’s sex change is a tonic at a time when the debate on transgenderism has become so fraught and so weaponised on social media. “What I would love this piece to do,” Grandage says, “is try and help that debate.” Corrin, who is non-binary, cannot recall a time when they were not aware of the story and of Potter’s film in particular: “the sensation that it was, aesthetically and in terms of Tilda’s performance, but also through the conversations it started about the fluidity of gender at a time when it wasn’t really on people’s radar.”
The apparent ease and undoubted panache with which Woolf addressed what she called “androgyny” remains spectacular. As Jeanette Winterson remarks in her introduction to the Folio Society edition of the novel – reproduced in the play’s programme notes – it is hard to exaggerate its transgressive spirit: “I am still not sure how [she] got away with all this, but she did”.
Women over 20 were only granted the vote in the year of the novel’s publication. And yet Woolf – already a prominent writer and luminary of the Bloomsbury Group – was far ahead, playing fast and loose with the mutability of sex and identity. Orlando, she wrote, “had a great variety of selves to call upon, far more than we have been able to find room for, since a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousand.”
In her approach to time itself, she was no less radical – anticipating by many decades the debt of late 20th-century novelists like Martin Amis and Ian McEwan to the so-called “New Physics”. An hour, she wrote, “once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the time-piece of the mind by one second. This extraordinary discrepancy between time on the clock and time in the mind is less known than it should be and deserves fuller investigation.”
This revolutionary approach to temporality in fiction has often been attributed to the influence of the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) whose Time and Free Will (1889) reframed the passing of time in relation to consciousness, subjectivity and “inner duration.”
Yet Virginia’s husband, Leonard, was emphatic that she “did not read a word of Bergson”. In contrast, she was certainly aware of Einstein’s Special and General Theories of Relativity (1905 and 1915), and wrote that if the scientist was correct, “we shall be able to foretell our own lives.”
Though this was not precisely what Einstein was proposing, her excitement at his overhaul of Newton’s universe and its potential for writers of fiction is palpable. Were she writing Orlando in 2022, she would surely be exploring the possibilities of quantum mechanics – the notion that something can be two things at once – and the transhumanist potential of AI to mimic and perhaps (as some claim) to upload human personality.
Corrin’s return to the London stage after their triumphant debut in Joseph Charlton’s Anna X last year (see Creative Sensemaker, 16 December 2021) is cause enough for celebration.
Even better is their decision to inhabit the role of Orlando – a superhero of soul and self, who returns repeatedly to electrify contemporary culture with Woolf’s spirit of radical possibility. Not, in this case, a moment too soon.
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Here are this week’s recommendations:
White Noise (selected cinemas, December 2; Netflix, 30 December)
After the success of Marriage Story (2019) – nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards – director Noah Baumbach sticks with lead actor Adam Driver but confronts a riskier creative challenge by tackling Don DeLillo’s supposedly “unfilmable” 1985 novel.
Miraculously, it works – and works well. DeLillo’s sweeping exploration of the American campus, dystopianism, consumer culture and eco-disaster is one of the great examples of the postmodern novel of ideas. And this meshes neatly with Baumbach’s well-established love of juxtaposing the hyper-real with the everyday detail of family life.
Driver is Jack Gladney, a professor at the College-on-the-Hill, and acknowledged authority in “Hitler studies” (though his German is embarrassingly rudimentary). Greta Gerwig is terrific as his wife Babbette with whom he is raising four children (she is secretly addicted to a drug called Dylar).
The story’s principal disruptor is the “airborne toxic event” – a menacing black cloud caused by a chemical spill that gives unwelcome immediacy to Jack and Babbette’s previous discussions about mortality. The prospect of mass fatalities lends dramatic structure to the movie, but the true delights of White Noise are to be found elsewhere.
In particular, Don Cheadle is wonderful as Murray J. Siskind, one of Jack’s colleagues, who is obsessed by the iconic significance of Elvis Presley, believes that grocery shopping is a form of “rebirth” and reckons the tendency of car crashes to become more violent and elaborate to be a symbol of “American optimism.”
It is also Murray who offers the most thought-provoking observation of the movie: namely that, against stiff competition, the family is the greatest source of misinformation. In this sense, “white noise” is truly inescapable. But Baumbach’s film is anything but a work of despair: few scenes in recent cinema have the infectious exuberance of his whole cast dancing to LCD Soundsystem’s specially written track, ‘New Body Rhumba’.
Slow Horses, Season 2 (Apple TV+, December 2)
Welcome back to Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman) and his team of MI5 misfits – exiled to Slough House in Aldersgate Street in the City of London for a variety of sins against the service.
Based on Mick Herron’s bestselling thriller of the same name, the first season, which made its debut in April (see Creative Sensemaker, 31 March) was one of the streaming highlights of 2022; and it is an early festive treat that the new season (drawing its plot from the second Slough House book, Dead Lions) is being released so quickly.
Jack Lowden is back as River Cartwright, the closest the Slow Horses have to a young hero – though as the new season begins, he is trying to make an escape to the private sector. When that doesn’t work out, Lamb sends him off to find out who, if anyone, murdered long-retired agent Dickie Bow (Phil Davis). Is there truth, after all, in the supposedly discredited legend that, as the Cold War was ending, the KGB embedded a cohort of secret “cicadas” in British society – and are they now awakening?
Oldman is fantastic as Lamb: apparently a mess of incivility, slobbish disorder and chain-smoking decline, but, as we learned in the first season, much more than that. Absurd and Falstaffian though he is, he knows how to convey real steel and menace – especially in his exchanges with “Lady” Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas), number two in the security service, but plotting her way to the very top.
Saskia Reeves is great, too, as Catherine Standish, a casualty and keeper of MI5’s many secrets; and Jonathan Pryce returns as David Cartwright, River’s grandfather and an MI5 legend. To give you a sense of just how good Slow Horses is, I watched all six episodes in one sitting. Roll on Season Three.
Tulsa King (Paramount+)
Sylvester Stallone has never quite recovered from being rejected as an extra in The Godfather – and, though his most famous character, Rocky Balboa, was nicknamed the “Italian Stallion”, he has never been cast in a mob movie.
Now, at last, aged 76, he has been granted his wish – albeit on the small screen. Created by Taylor Sheridan, Tulsa King is a ten-episode mafia series with a twist. Having kept his mouth shut and served his 25 years in prison, New York capo Dwight Manfredi is finally released – only to be told by the bosses that his services are no longer required in the big city and that he is being exiled to the sticks to see what he can squeeze out of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Initially furious, Dwight is experienced enough to know that defiance is a death wish and heads off to the so-called “Sooner State”, wondering how he is going to make bricks from straw.
Opportunity knocks at a stoner store, which he quickly grasps can become first stop on his path to a fortune. His cabbie from the airport, Tyson (Jay Will) is immediately taken on as his full-time chauffeur – though Dwight has misgivings about Tyson’s enthusiasm to become a gangster, sensing that he is capable of greater things. He has a one-night stand with Stacy (Andrea Savage) – who turns out to be a federal ATF agent. When she realises who Dwight is, she tells him firmly that she will never help out: but he and she both know that isn’t true.
So closely associated is Stallone with 1980s action movies that it is easily forgotten what an accomplished actor he is (Oscar-nominated twice for his performances, as well as for his Rocky screenplay). And he brings real wit and humanity to the role of Dwight: in episode three, he is forced (having been in jail for so long) to take a new driving test, and, just as things are going well, is shot at by a balaclava-clad assassin in another car.
The scene quickly becomes a superb slice of action comedy, as bullets fly, cars crash, and the bewildered examiner gibbers at Stallone’s side. It’s been quite a wait since that Godfather snub – but it looks as though it was worth it.
Life’s Work – David Milch (Picador)
The man who founded the golden age of prestige television in which we are lucky enough to live is not Aaron Sorkin, David Chase, David Simon or Vince Gilligan but a former teacher of English at Yale University called David Milch.
Having written a script for Hill Street Blues in 1982, Milch, who is now 77, embarked upon a spectacular career in television and – notably as co-creator of NYPD Blue and the genius behind Deadwood – showed, more than any other individual, that, against general expectation, the medium could still reconcile the sublime imperatives of art with the pressures of the mass market. As he writes in this wonderful memoir: “what you try to find is a coincidence of separate interests of art and commerce, and then sustain that coincidence for as long as possible, never forgetting the fact that the interests are separate.”
Television, according to Milch, “searches you out, and finds out what you’re capable of, or what you’re willing to settle for. Working in the medium requires an exotic combination of bravery and imagination – when you have a good imagination it can be very difficult to be brave.” His own life has been one of picaresque adventure, addiction, recovery and a mesmerising capacity to capsize genres and fill them with astonishing artistic ambition (most fans of Deadwood probably don’t realise that much of it is composed in iambic pentameters).
Full disclosure: along with my script-writing partner, Sarah Standing, I worked closely with Milch in Los Angeles a few years back, on a historical drama project that never made it to air, but was a joy from start to finish. The greatest privilege was the rolling masterclass of his conversation, and the dance of his mind across the prairies of literature, movies, horse-racing and the endless quest by human beings to banish isolation through artistic endeavour.
Though now sadly afflicted by Alzheimer’s, he has written a book that is both a gripping account of a life lived to the full, and a call-to-arms to those who still believe (as they should) that contemporary popular culture can scale extraordinary heights.
The Satsuma Complex – Bob Mortimer (Gallery UK)
Imagine Sam Spade chatting to squirrels; or Mike Hammer naming a pair of passing dogs “Zak Briefcase” and “Lengthy Parsnip”. Because this is what you get when you let the amazing comic imagination of Bob Mortimer loose on the tropes and conventions of the noir thriller.
In July, Frankie Boyle showed to impressive effect what his own brand of comedy could do within the detective genre (see Creative Sensemaker, 21 July). Naturally, Mortimer’s approach is very different, and is delightfully true to the sunny, surreal world-view that made his memoir And Away… a number-one bestseller last year.
As in so many noir plots, Gary Thorn becomes a sleuth only by accident: a legal assistant at a Peckham solicitor’s office who is “about as dynamic as an abandoned fridge”. But he is soon embroiled in a murder mystery when he meets a private investigator acquaintance, Brendan (“a hint of novelty sock is always deliberately on offer”), for drinks at a pub in Camberwell – only to discover subsequently that Brendan has been found dead and that the police have him tapped as the last person to see him alive.
To complicate matters, Gary falls for Emily, an archetypal femme fatale (the advice from his “squirrel mate” is “to have a think around why she would say something so noncommittal”). There is a classic MacGuffin, too, in the corncob-shaped USB stick that Brendan left behind in the pub.
Cue many plot twists and character reveals worthy of the mind behind the magnificent Athletico Mince podcast and the world’s greatest Peter Beardsley impression. Mortimer is having so much fun that only the most churlish reader will be able to resist.
Why Read? Selected Writings 2001-2021 – Will Self (Grove Press UK)
When somebody reading complex passages of prose is placed in an MRI scanner, writes Will Self, “we can see on the machine’s visual display that almost all of their brain is lit up like the proverbial Christmas tree”.
In this absorbing and often unsettling collection of pieces, it is no part of the writer’s purpose to scold or to wag a professorial finger at the world around him. The essence of Self’s appeal has long been a twinkle-eyed lugubriousness: the countenance of a man – whether writing for the Times Literary Supplement or captaining a team on Shooting Stars – who is long past believing that much can be done to save the world.
All the same, he can’t help himself to this extent: he does want to remind us what is at stake as we seem to bid a protracted farewell to what Marshall McLuhan called “the Gutenberg mind”. If, in Self’s terms, reading is “conceived of importantly as an individual and private absorption in a unitary text of some length”, then it is idle to deny that there is much less of that going on than there used to be.
This, please note, is not a question of book sale statistics but of what we do with books (in whatever format) once we’ve bought them. And whether we still believe that “reading about diverse modes of being and consciousness is the best way we have of entering into them and abiding” and that “[to] enter the flow-state of reading is to swim into other psyches with great ease, whatever their age, sex, sexual orientation, nationality, class or ethnicity.”
I greatly enjoyed Self’s musings on the meaning of shelves; Junky by William Burroughs; and Australia. But the serrated edge of this collection is what it has to say about us.
Social media are, he says, “the literary forms most central to the cultural and collective social being of our age”. But what does that mean? The “message of the new media is….that the only thing that matters is novelty and concision”.
But that’s not all. Self’s most brilliant insight is that we are all much too busy writing (albeit in an infantilised and narcissistic form) to spare much time for reading. Our new books are ourselves – the “book-like human persona” which is governed by “a categorical imperative to convey its contents to others.” Who has time for Proust’s madeleine when we’re busy telling the world on Instagram about our very own lemon drizzle cake?
You can almost sense the Christmas lights on the MRI scan fading into darkness, one by one. But Self is clear about where the moral choice lies: “read what the hell you like – everyone else is.”
The soulful introspection – the mellow vulnerability – of Stormzy’s third album may come as a surprise to some; but not those who have been listening. There has always been a poetic emotionalism to his music, however powerful the grime beat in which it is wrapped, and recurrent references to his faith.
From the wonderful opening track, ‘Fire + Water’, This is What I Mean explores the borderland between spirituality and the broken heart: “It’s probably best we found a fire from this perfect match to burn us to the ground”. Ditto “Holy Spirit”: “You gave me peace and purpose / Although I don’t deserve it, although I’m far from perfect.”
There are still plenty of sharp allusions to the world outside the studio on Osea Island in Essex: to Michael Gove; to the Duchess of Sussex (“please leave Meghan alone”); to Partygate (“We got champagne bottles for them boys at Number 10”).
But, by design, this is a more contemplative album than its platinum-selling predecessor, Heavy Is the Head (2019). On its title track, Stormzy spells it out: “This ain’t the same man who said his head was heavy.” When it comes to isolation, mental health and encounters with despair, the sheer candour of “Got My Smile Back” is extraordinary: “Me and Suicidal Thoughts, we haven’t spoke for years / You know all my deepest secrets, you know all my fears / I pray that I don’t ever see your face again / me and Peace of Mind became the best of friends.”
He also recruits a wealth of talent to the project – notably 22-year-old Debbie Ehirim, whose voice is perfectly matched to album closer “Give It to the Water”, and Tendai (same age) whose R&B vocals on “Need You” are one of the album’s highlights. Sampha gets his very own track, “Sampha’s Plea” – and Tems, Ayra Starr and Amaarae also enhance a record that manages to convey both solitude and joyful communion. Stormzy’s first torch album, and his best album to date.
A flop when it opened at Covent Garden in 1750, Theodora was nonetheless the oratorio that Handel most cherished – on which note: he would have been delighted by the Royal Opera’s triumphant production earlier this year.
The thread connecting the ROH’s staging and this magnificent recording by the ensemble, Il Pomo d’Oro under the conductorship of Maxim Emelyanychev, is superstar mezzo Joyce DiDonato – outstanding in both in the role of Irene.
A tale of Christian martyrs in 4th-century Antioch under Roman occupation, Theodora is a tragic but luminous story of love, faith and intrigue. Lisette Oropesa excels in the title role, demanding that her fellow believers renounce Rome’s earthly delights, but no less passionate in her love for Didymus, played by the terrific young French countertenor Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian. Baritenor Michael Spyres as Septimius and baritone John Chest complete a world-class cast.
Emelyanychev, conducting from the harpsichord, is fully in command of the material, its often slow tempos and the dramatic challenges posed by the tragic story. Undaunted by the adverse reception to this oratorio in his own lifetime, Handel himself considered the final chorus of Part II, ‘He saw the lovely youth’, to be superior to the “Hallelujah” from his own Messiah. This majestic recording helps to explain why.
“Hunky Dory was the next step,” David Bowie recalled of his 1971 masterpiece, “I don’t think it had any through line but I think I was getting nearer to what I wanted to do which was to create this alternative world.”
Half a century later, we can now see quite how much experimentation, exploration and concept-testing went into the production of an album that, to this day, sounds as though it all came so easily to a performer who – as it turned out was – on the cusp of one of the greatest decades of work by any artist of the 20th century.
This magnificent box set – four CDs, one Blu-ray and two books – takes us deep into the engine room of Hunky Dory and shows how hard-won an accomplishment it was. There are no fewer than 48 previously unreleased tracks; demos of songs that didn’t appear on the finished album (try the San Francisco hotel cover version of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting For the Man”); covers of Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam”; two John Peel sessions at the BBC in June 1971; another BBC session with Bob Harris; and a concert recording at Friars, Aylesbury, in which you can hear in Bowie’s voice both residual hesitancy and the burgeoning spirit of beckoning superstardom.
It has been a great year for Bowie fans, thanks in large part to Brett Morgen’s stunning documentary Moonage Daydream (see Creative Sensemaker, 15 September). But this beautifully curated box set is, in its own way, no less significant – adding substantially to our understanding of an album that permeates the culture to this day. Oh man, look at those cavemen go….
RIP Christine McVie (12 July 1943-30 November 2022)
“Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow/ Don’t stop, it’ll soon be here/ It’ll be better than before/ Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone.” It was no accident that Bill Clinton chose Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” as his 1992 presidential campaign song, for the track was perhaps the greatest anthem of collective optimism cherished by the Boomer generation. It was also one of the most famous songs written by Christine McVie who died yesterday, aged 79.
Joining the band in 1970, McVie helped, as keyboard player, vocalist and songwriter, to oversee its transition from bluesy roots to a stadium-friendly embrace of soft rock. Precisely when Fleetwood Mac seemed to be on the point of imploding – torn apart by emotional crises and drugs – her professionalism helped to capture all the lightning in the bottle that became the classic 1977 album Rumours (which has sold at least 40 million copies to date).
Sadness overnight at her passing was matched by a celebratory argument over which of her many songs was the greatest: “Little Lies”, “Everywhere”, “You Make Loving Fun”, or “Songbird”?. It was noticeable, too, that tributes were paid by younger bands such as Haim as well as McVie’s bandmates and contemporaries. “I enjoyed the storm,” she said in June. “Even though I am quite a peaceful person, I did enjoy that storm.”
And finally, thank you to Andrew Butler, Tortoise’s Head of Social & PR, for this recommendation:
“‘Tis (almost) the season for festive charity singles, but while Band Aid et al. usually focus on a Christmas theme, A Million Dreams is different. In 2021, seven-year-old Ravi Adelekan had a life-changing operation which left him with ongoing complications. A year on, to celebrate how far he has come, he and his father, Metronomy bassist Gbenga Adelekan, have curated a remarkable line-up on a cover of the song from The Greatest Showman. Dan Smith (Bastille), Paloma Faith, Seye Adelekan (Gorillaz) and Damon Albarn all feature, with proceeds going to The Brain Tumour Charity and brainstrust. Listen here.”
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to email@example.com.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner
Photographs courtesy Marc Brenner/Michael Grandage Company, Liam Longman/Adventure Pictures Ltd, Harvard University Library, Universal History Archive/Getty Images, Thunderbird Releasing, Brian Douglas/Paramount+, Netflix, Apple TV+, Michael Putland/Getty Images