Interview: Matthew Backer discusses Sydney Theatre Company’s latest production Orlando

Orlando, based on Virgina Woolf’s novel of the same name, is a whimsical, magical tale of time and transformation. It follows the nobleman Orlando in the court of Elizabeth I who awakes transformed as a woman and begins a glorious journey of time travel in her way to find her true self. We caught up with Matthew Backer to discuss the play, it’s roles, and it’s ever-relevant messages of love and self.

Can you tell us a little bit about Orlando?

Orlando is based on Virginia Woolf’s novel of the same name, which is a fantastical biography basically. She was brought up by her father who was a biographer. He wrote the history of biographies, which doesn’t sound that interesting, but it was all about facts and figures and Virgina was really adamant that you cant just record someone’s life through facts and figures- you need to know their spirit and personality. So she wrote what I class as a piss-take biography really. It’s a beautifully epic tale of someone who chooses not to grow old and lives for 400 years and who half way through becomes a woman.

And what is your role in the play?

So to translate the novel to the stage is very difficult, but Jacqueline McKenzie is Orlando and then there is a chorus of four guys and Luisa and I’m one of them- playing the part of the biographer telling the story. We play umpteen roles around her, one minute I’m a maid the next I’m the first girl who the young boy Orlando falls in love with, then I’m Desdemona, then I’m a scholarly gentlemen… It’s really fun because we don’t have a second to stop. In some ways it is harder because you feel like you’re never landing anything, but I think that is the point of the play- that Orlando is the only constant in this world of craziness. So it’s fun to jump in and jump out and not have to worry about character arcs and getting to a certain place by a certain point emotionally. We just have to come in and hit it.

How do you go about performing something that spans such a varied time periods, rather than being staged in a single time and place?

We’re doing it with music and costume, and this adaptation is so lyrical in what we’re saying so it sort of describes the era anyway without us actually having to do that much by mannerisms. We’ve actually been finding the less we do the better, as it’s just such a big story and the audience needs to take a lot in. So if we were taking on too many mannerisms of the era it might become a bit much. We’re just thinking about the era and how people would react, more than playing it. We don’t want to guild the lily (that’s a Shakespeare!).

I think audiences will learn in the first 10-15mins just to let go and go along for the ride. There is no use asking questions in the moment, ask them later. Which is wonderful! It’s a good metaphor for life- just dive in and let it fly along.

Although the novel was written in 1928 do you feel it still has a lot of modern messages to convey about feminism, gender and transgender?

The first time we got together we sat around a table just chatting about it and we had the most amazing discussions about gender and sexuality and how we perceive time and how we fall in love and out of love… it was a great way to get to know your cast very quickly. For a book written in the 20s it was so ahead of its time. Basically the message I get from it is that we have so many different versions of ourself, but my-self and your-self are just spirits, and that’s all that’s important. It’s not about what gender we are or who we love or what we want to do with our life, at the end of the day our spirit is something amazing and wonderful and you can’t define or contain it. And that’s magical. You need to let people be themselves not matter what they are- whether they’re male, female, gay, straight.

Have you read Orlando or any of Virginia Woolf’s novels previously?

I touched on Mrs Dalloway when I was doing Journalism back at University, but I hadn’t read any fully. I’ve always wanted to and then when I did read Orlando it was incredible. It wasn’t a book that you could just pick up and read on the bus, you really had to dive into it and let go. She writes likes a stream of consciousness, so you’ll be reading 25 pages and you’ll be like- how did I get here? It’s like a metaphor for Orlando! One minute she’s in the 17th Century and the next second she’s in the 19th… Don’t ask questions just go with it.

It’s very sweeping and romantic and I’m falling in love with it more as we go along.

Do you have a favourite scene of the production?

I’m just loving watching Jacqueline McKenzie. She is so incredible and comes up with the most zaniest choices, but they work and its so amazing to watch.

I am taking a sick thrill that I get to be Desdemona and do the death scene. I never thought I’d be playing Desdemona but here we go!

What is it like working with Sarah Goodes and the STC?

It’s brilliant. This is my second time at STC and Sarah is a really magnetic sort of director, you can’t help but listen to her views and trust her inherently. She just runs the most beautiful, casual, conducive room to creating fun work. She’s a wonderful wonderful woman. The combination of her and Jackie at the helm is a wonder to behold.

And finally, if you lived for centuries and could time travel, which periods would you like to travel to and who would you most like to meet?

I’d love to go back to Elizabethan England and meet ol’ Willie Shakes himself! I want to see what London was like back then, and as we say at the beginning of the play- “The age was Elizabethan and their morals were not ours” so I just want to know what it was like to live there. And go to The Globe and see a show. How they responded to the first time Hamlet was played… To hear it in their language as well with their accents would be incredible.

Matt will be performing in Orlando at the Sydney Theatre Company’s The Wharf from 9th November to the 19th December. For more information visit www.sydneytheatre.com.au