Blurred Lines

29 August 2014 | 3:25 pm | Helen Stringer

Emma Valente chats about the politics of queer theatre.

Sometimes literature is accidentally revolutionary. What might be frivolous, a means of filling in time between writing a “proper” novel, may turn out to be a masterpiece. Virginia Woolf’s novel, Orlando, is such an example. Woolf wrote Orlando as a break from “serious” writing: as a love letter to her lover Vita Sackville-West, the faux-biographical style a nod to her father, who compiled The Dictionary Of National Biography. The novel’s eponymous protagonist begins life as a male, but wakes up, unfazed, to find herself female. Surprisingly, the novel released in 1928, despite the obvious commentary on the fluidity of sexuality and the artificiality of gender construction, became one of Woolf’s most popular and accessible novels.

Melbourne theatre company The Rabble brought Orlando to the stage in 2012, to much acclaim; it’s now making its River City debut at Brisbane Festival. The Rabble’s Orlando was, says co-founder Emma Valente (who runs The Rabble with Kate Davis), a turning point for the company, elevating The Rabble’s status to one of the independent theatre companies to watch. Orlando may have put them on the map, but Davis and Valente have always made boundary-pushing work: “We make work with quite distinctive political aims,” says Valente, “Most of the time our interpretation has a feminist or queer bent to it. We’re looking at gender and what that means in a contemporary sense.”

The Rabble are often described as avant-garde; Valente is comfortable with the label: “To me, avant-garde is something outside of the centre. That sits well with me in terms of how I view our work.” Valente read Orlando in her late teens, and it had an enormous impact on how she felt about gender and identity. “Woolf was ahead of her time. These ideas weren’t articulated until the ‘70s and ‘80s. It had a personal impact on me, but it’s also this glorious story… Orlando is a wondrous protagonist.”

Valente and Davis don’t write scripts, but create the piece on the floor; actors and directors build the work from the ground up. Devising Orlando, says Valente, began with the image of a white, milky, set, almost colourless: representative of a blank slate upon which Orlando can write her own identity. In Woolf’s Orlando the titular character is placidly accepting of his metamorphosis, a comment on the falsity of dichotomous gender roles and identities. “That’s the marked difference of the production,” says Valente. For Valente’s Orlando the theatre-maker says that there’s “something quite violent” about Orlando’s transformation – a rawness and overt sexuality. Despite being an intense, explicit experience, Valente says, “I feel like Orlando is one of our most accessible works; if people come open they might have a really wild ride with us.”

16 — 20 Sep, Brisbane Festival, Theatre Republic, QUT, The Loft