Emma Corrin Bends Time and Gender in Orlando

Ciarán Howley reviews Emma Corrin’s turn as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando in the new London Stage adaptation.

Emma Corrin is no stranger to period pieces. Their breakout role was as Princess Diana in the hit Netflix series The Crown. Corrin had appeared only in small roles in film and television before taking on one of the biggest roles there is: ‘The Queen of People’s Hearts.’ 

They excelled, taking home a Golden Globe and a Critics Choice award and has subsequently nabbed starring roles in the Harry Styles-led queer love triangle My Policeman and a Netflix adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s ‘salacious’ Lady Chatterley's Lover. What Corrin brings to the screen is charisma, vulnerability and gripping watchability. But can they replicate it onstage? 

The answer is yes. Corrin is at the helm of Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s time-traversing, gender-disrupting novel Orlando, directed by Michael Grandage for the Garrick Theatre in London. It’s a trim but self-assured revamp of the story, in which Virginia Woolf plays an active role as an ensemble whispering in the young bachelor’s ear. Orlando is a garrulous young nobleman from the Elizabethan era - he even rejects the Queen’s advances early on - before inexplicably transforming into a woman. Corrin is captivating in the role, even if the production creaks along at times through the source material. 

At a time when destructive and harmful discourse around trans and non-binary identity is rampant in the United Kingdom, Orlando blows in like a breath of fresh air. Joyous, ebullient and transcendent, Corrin takes this role and runs with it. It’s testament to Virginia Woolf’s foresight as a writer that she created a text that still provides revelations about gender and sexuality in 2022. It refrains from being instructive however, and is modern in ways beyond its politics. References to Some Like it Hot and Cabaret are peppered throughout the dialogue, and teasing lines like “welcome ladies and gentleman and everyone” keep the performance from taking itself too seriously. 

When Corrin gets all Hamlet on us - “Who Am I?” - Deborah Findlay is a revelation taking us back down to earth in the supporting role of Orlando’s dresser, Mrs Grimsditch. Where Corrin leans into Shakespeare, Findlay is more like Carry On and delivers crackling dialogue with a matronly wit and no-nonsense attitude. She’s a blunt edge to Orlando’s notions of grandeur, and the centuries old bond between the pair feels intimate and believable. 

While not a roaring victory, Orlando is a small but impressive stride towards the kind of stories that are desperately needed onstage today. Nuanced and forward-thinking, with zaps of wit, energy and creativity.