Orlando: The Queer Element at Hanbury Hall

Orlando: The Queer Element

‘Orlando: The Queer Element’ was an interactive play about the history and science of gender. Eight performances at NT Knole and Hanbury Hall delighted over 500 students and members of the public.

Actors playing Trust tour guides met audiences at the gates but for a tour like no other

" ...something strange happened … it was crazy..."
- Orlando audience member

Ancient Greeks burst into courtyards to decide the fate of matricidal Orestes; and a troupe of Elizabethan actors were in trouble for casting a woman to play a woman on stage. 

The performance in full swing
Actors in performance of Orlando dressed in Georgian clothing
The performance in full swing

As history continued to unfurl, we found Vita Sackville-West (Virginia Woolf’s lover) arguing with her cousin Eddie, who inherited Knole in her place. This event inspired Woolf’s novel Orlando and Sally Potter’s film, which audiences later watched in an outdoor screening.

" ...completely different to anything I've been to before … a sick way to look back through history"
- student audience member

Why we did it

It’s not every day you get invited to do something that’s unique, challenging, and a little bit mad. So when theatre company Clay & Diamonds asked if we wanted to go on a 2,500 year adventure to explore gender, our answer was a resounding yes!

The audience arrives
Audience members arriving for a performance of Orlando at Hanbury Hall
The audience arrives

It reflected the Trust’s commitment to a year of alternative stories through our Prejudice and Pride programme, complementing Hanbury’s famous Thornhill wall paintings with their gender ambiguous Achilles. 

It was also an opportunity to give our members, visitors, schools and volunteers an experience to remember, one we hoped would Move, Teach and Inspire them in new, surprising ways and one whose themes would linger in the mind long after the curtain had come down.

Unique, challenging and a little bit mad
Performers in Orlando wearing white suits in front of Hanbury Hall
Unique, challenging and a little bit mad

How it went

For the week the actors and production team were here, the world seemed a brighter place. We miss Greek Furies in the Forecourt, Tudors on the lawn, Alan Turing playing chess in the Gazebo. 

But what did our audience members, schools and volunteers make of it all? This show explored complex issues of what it means to be called ‘man’ or ‘woman’. 

The show begins
School students sit on the grass in a circle during a performance of Orlando
The show begins

Most were enthusiastic and embracing, but some naturally felt a little uncomfortable. Initially reticent high school pupils excelled in the workshops and showed a maturity and insightfulness that made us proud.

Of the volunteers who chose to participate, the result was overwhelmingly positive. 

" It was incredible – you have completely changed my mind."
- Initially sceptical volunteer

Why we should do it again

As lovers of history we know that today is built on many yesterdays.Looking back at our collective past is important as it helps place ourselves in time. What we “know” today may one day be regarded as madness!

‘For Ever, For Everyone’ is the beating heart of the National Trust. We should continue to open up our spaces to new experiences, audiences and perspectives while maintaining respect for our stories, conservation and heritage.

" This (Orlando) mattered today because it’s one step closer to showing the world that I matter"
- Visitor feedback