Interview met Katelijne Damen en Guy Cassiers over Orlando

De roman vertelt het verhaal van Orlando, een jonge man die in Engeland geboren wordt tijdens de heerschappij van Queen Elisabeth, met wie hij een korte affaire heeft. Na haar dood wordt Orlando de minnaar van de mooie Sasja, een Russische prinses. De nacht waarin zij samen zouden vluchten daagt zij echter niet op en treedt de Grote Dooi in, een van de spectaculairste en bekendste scènes uit het boek. Orlando haalt kracht en inspiratie uit zijn natuurbeleving. Maar hij wil ook dichter worden. Met wisselend succes wijdt hij zich aan zijn gedicht De Eik. Orlando wordt als Engelse gezant naar Konstantinopel gestuurd. Na een lange slaap ontwaakt Orlando als vrouw. Hij sluit zich aan bij een groep rondtrekkende zigeuners, maar het verlangen om terug te keren naar Engeland groeit met de dag. Ze ontdekt wat het betekent man of vrouw te zijn. We zijn intussen in de negentiende eeuw en sombere wolken trekken zich samen. Orlando werkt verder aan haar gedicht De Eik. Ze ontmoet een man en verlooft zich. We eindigen in het jaar 1928.

Orlando (1929) is een ode aan de verbeelding. Aan de taal. Aan de schoonheid. Aan de zintuigen. Aan het leven. Dat vinden regisseur Guy Cassiers en actrice Katelijne Damen, die samen de bewerking maakten.

Katelijne Damen: Someone said to me: “Orlando is about a person who wants to die.” I really liked that approach.

Guy Cassiers: I felt the opposite: Orlando is concerned not with dying but with living. So much so that he/she forgets to die! People often refer to the literary character of Woolf’s novel, but what I see in it is first and foremost a zest for life. The character takes pleasure in looking ahead to what is to come. His drive to achieve something is strong. Orlando is forever young. I see the story as an ode to life.

Katelijne Damen: That’s true. There is always a lightness about the story, even in the sad and painful moments. All aspects of life are constantly rediscovered. The protagonist is initially a man and then a woman, otherwise Orlando would not have felt life was complete. Very slowly Orlando discovers what it means to be a woman. And perhaps the novel is not about being a man or a woman, but about being a person, a human being. Perhaps there are two sexes in all of us. Orlando starts working on his long poem The Oak Tree as a young lad, but finishes it as a woman!

Guy Cassiers: Orlando is in search of his/her identity without being psychologically preoccupied with it. His/her identity is largely determined by the surroundings. The impetus to take the next step comes from the surroundings. His/her senses are always wide open to reality. Together with Orlando you learn to look, you learn to listen and you learn to smell. The more you use your senses, the more you are transformed in life.

Katelijne Damen: I find ‘evolve’ a better word than ‘transform’. Orlando doesn’t actually change from a man into a woman, but evolves from man to woman. The transition is not problematic. Virginia Woolf wrote the story in a very brutal way. Orlando is engaged to be married, then she has a child. After that you don’t hear any more about the child. There is something honest about that brutality. You even accept the change of gender. Virginia Woolf didn’t keep to the customary rules of the architecture of a novel; she detached herself from codes and forms.   

Guy Cassiers: In that way centuries pass. We begin at the time of Queen Elizabeth and end in 1928. Orlando is a sort of outsider. A witness of events. History plays an important role in the play, too, but not in the same way as in for example Triptych of Power, The Man without Qualities and Dark Heart. In those plays we saw that the human being does not really change that much: he doesn’t learn from history. Orlando shows the opposite: mankind’s ability to change constantly. It is an ode to individual thought and imagination. An ode to the individual who builds his own world, despite the circumstances. It is an ode to survival. As a man and as a woman Orlando is engaged in writing a poem. In that respect he/she is an artist. The novel is a Bildungsroman: we watch Orlando grow to maturity even though it takes centuries! So it is also an ode to artistry and to the imagination which transcends realism. After the plays in which the main emphasis is on mankind’s weaknesses and shortcomings, this is a hymn to mankind. I needed to make a play which people come out of happy!

Katelijne Damen: “Too long for a joke and too frivolous for a serious book” is how Virginia Woolf described her novel. The light and brutal tone of the narration has a lot to do with the narrator. It is not Orlando in person who addresses the reader, but his/her biographer. He is eloquent and not afraid to add fiction to the facts. The narrator is like the reader. Sometimes he identifies with Orlando, sometimes he disassociates himself.     

Guy Cassiers: Virginia Woolf hides behind the biographer who hides behind Orlando. And we, too, hide behind him/her. You have a continuous game of distance and identification. In fact the play is also about play-acting: how do you persuade someone to step into another world? At the same time, in theatre you always show that it is not real. You position yourself somewhere between lie and truth. The novel is also full of unexpected leaps. You are suddenly confronted with a totally different world and yet you always go along with it.

Katelijne Damen: Woolf’s writing is really beautiful, seductive and poetical. Her language is pure and clean. I dread having to learn it by heart because everything has to be so precise. At the same time it is pure pleasure to be allowed to speak those sentences.

Guy Cassiers: We are looking for a rather abstract acting style which does justice to Woolf’s poetry by for example slowing down or accelerating gestures and movements. The same happens in the novel: pages are devoted to some moments, whereas in other places decades are skipped in a single sentence. That playing with time cuts to the core of the story.


Interview by Erwin Jans

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